The Israeli press paid tribute to Nelson Mandela today, Dec. 6, in much the same manner as other media outlets around the world, recounting his lifelong struggle and achievements. The Israeli news site Ynet republished extracts of his autobiography, recently translated into Hebrew. What was missing, though, was any mention of the complex relations that existed between Mandela and Israel.
Perhaps the Israeli editors felt that the time was not right for such an analysis. Grief takes over all other sentiments, as it should, especially when it comes to Mandela — a personal hero to us all. Having been posted in South Africa as an Israeli journalist for over two years, following the evolution of the new nation, I believe that this relationship, with all its various tones and shades, make up a part of Mandela's heritage and a lesson not to be forgotten.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry asserted this morning that its ambassador in Pretoria, Arthur Lenk, will represent the state of Israel at the numerous ceremonies following Mandela's death. It has not been decided yet whether any Israeli politician will travel to South Africa for the occasion. The debate is understandable. Since the first free elections in South Africa in 1994, few Israeli ministers and politicians have visited the country. The same holds true for South African ministers coming to Israel, especially over the last year, following a call by South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana Mashabane to stop such visits and to curtail relations with Jerusalem.
Israel and South Africa have had longstanding relations since the establishment of the Jewish state. South Africa was one of the first to recognize the young country, and both countries have maintained diplomatic relations to some degree throughout the years. These relations were colored to a great extent by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by Israel's relations with the Arab world. In addition, Israel was the only Western country to maintain contact with Pretoria in the '80s (a relationship known as the "pariahs' alliance") and was allegedly involved, according to foreign sources, in South Africa's nuclear project and arms sales.
Mandela and the African National Conference developed a comprehensive kinship and camaraderie, ideological and also operational, with freedom movements around the world, such as those of Angola and Cuba. Supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian cause were part of this policy, which is still today an important component of South Africa's foreign relations agenda in its dealings with Israel and also with the United States and Europe.
During his years of fighting and incarceration, Mandela expressed his views on several occasions in favor of the Palestinian struggle and against Israeli control over the occupied territories. But upon his election as South Africa's president, he offered forgiveness and reconciliation. When later visiting Israel for the first time in October 1999, he said, "To the many people who have questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid regime. I say: I've made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like animals. Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities."
This spirit of reconciliation was upheld only partly by those who followed Mandela. On the practical level, cooperation between the two countries is flourishing. Bilateral trade has passed $1 billion a year, and several Israeli companies, mainly in the field of telecommunications, have a presence in South Africa.
The political level is a different story. The movement calling for a boycott of products manufactured in the settlements and also for boycotting Israeli events and products in general has gained momentum in South Africa. South African politicians, such as deputies of the South African International Relations Ministry Ibrahim Ibrahim and Marius Fransman, have expressed support of this initiative, at times to the point where bilateral relations would depend on ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A long battle has been waged between the South African Ministry of Trade and the Israeli Authorities on the issue of boycotting settlement products, resulting in a compromise and a delay of any such regulations, due to the involvement and objections voiced by the South African Jewish community. Israeli-South African cooperation projects, which constitute the foundations for Israel's relations with many other African countries, are almost nonexistent in South Africa. Israeli musicians and academics are often greeted with protests. Israel did not participate in the Socialist International Congress held in Cape Town last year.
Paying tribute to Mandela, President Shimon Peres emphasized today that Mandela, "above everything, was a builder of bridges of peace and dialogue." South Africa is a model where dialogue and aspirations for peace have produced the miracle of a reborn "rainbow people" nation, uniting a multitude of tribes and cultural heritages. "Madiba," as Mandela was fondly called by his people, continues to teach us that humility and compassion are indispensible when trying to build bridges not only between Jerusalem and Pretoria, but also between Israel and its neighbors.
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