It is a tempting thought. What if Nelson Mandela had been drafted in to sort out the Israelis and Palestinians, like a wonder striker brought on late in a match to break the stalemate once and for all?
History came pretty close to making that fantasy real. Mandela visited Israel for the first time in October 1999, a few months before his presidency ended. He met newly-elected prime minister Ehud Barak, in which the two discussed the conflict with the Palestinians and the failure of the Oslo process. Mandela offered to mediate, but Barak rejected the idea on the basis that the South African leader was too close to Yasir Arafat.
Who knows whether Mandela — had he been allowed to help out — could have contributed towards a resolution of the conflict? One thing is certain: Mandela embodied a lesson about reconciliation. Peace deals are born through a fragile dynamic of trust that emerges between individuals. The primacy of character in determining the course of history is often underestimated, and Mandela was a template peacemaker.
“Madiba” could embrace his enemies. He was able to leave behind the anger of his 27 years of incarceration by the white government, shake hands and plan a nation that included all races. Crucially, he could change his mind.
Like Mandela, Rabin saw peace as an urgent strategic goal, and like Mandela, won the trust of his enemy – in his case, Arafat. Rabin never envisaged a nation in which the two warring peoples would live cheek-by-jowl. His slow-burning Oslo process, however, was arguably as effective as Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and led to Israel’s unprecedented offer at Camp David.
Like Mandela, Rabin was pragmatic and decided that his approach after the first intifada, in which he had pledged to “break the bones” of the Palestinians, would not work: by the time he was elected prime minister for the second time in 1992, he understood that negotiations were the only way forward.
Perhaps the biggest difference was luck. Mandela had FW de Klerk — who became convinced that apartheid would end in disaster and took the courageous decision to end white rule — and Rabin had Arafat, who never changed his mind that all Palestinian land should be returned. Then, of course, Rabin was assassinated.
For many Palestinians and even some Israelis, Marwan Barghouti is a nebulous Mandela. Imprisoned by Israel in 2004 for terrorism offences, he has remained in favour of a two-state solution and became a unifying figure for the Palestinians. He embraced the Oslo process and, in the mid-1990s, held meetings with Israeli politicians from across the spectrum.
But when the big opportunity came, Israel and the Palestinians did not get the refined, Janus-like figures of Rabin and Barghouti. They got the clumping, deaf elephant in Ehud Barak and the deception of Arafat.
In the wake of Rabin’s assassination, Barak was thought of as Israel’s saviour. But in power he was an egomaniac, secretive and unable to keep those around him loyal. Within a year of his election, his coalition was crumbling. He needed to turn his fortunes around and Camp David provided that opportunity.
Arafat had no such problems. He had control of 96 per cent of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and no need to compromise. His goal – expressed repeatedly – was to have back every inch of Palestinian land.
What if Rabin and Barghouti had been at Camp David instead of Ehud Barak and Yasir Afarat? We’ll never know. What we do know from Mandela, however, is it is possible to defy the inevitable.