Deathbed apology by last Apartheid South African leader begs a question: “Where is Israel’s de Klerk?”

F.W. de Klerk, who as South Africa’s last apartheid president oversaw the end of the country’s white minority rule, has died at the age of 85. In a pre-recorded message to the South African Nation, de Klerk apologised “unreservedly” for the pain and suffering caused by South African Apartheid. Read more…

Israeli politicians are fond of saying that they have “no peace partner” on the Palestinian side. “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?”, they frequently ask.

The death of F. W. de Klerk on November 10th raises the opposite question: “Where is the Israeli politician who will end Israeli apartheid? Where is the Israeli de Klerk?

The former president’s foundation released a pre-recorded farewell message after his death was announced Thursday, in which de Klerk says he “defended separate development in his early years” but “had a conversion” in the 1980s and realized apartheid was wrong.

I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” a frail-looking de Klerk says in the undated video.

De Klerk remains a controversial figure in South Africa, of course. For a small fringe of white supremacists, he is still seen as a traitor and a renegade.

And many Black South Africans remember painfully the role that de Klerk played in sustaining apartheid.

Commenting on de Klerk’s video, South African journalist Redi Thihabi reflected the thoughts of many Black South Africans in an article in the Washington Post: “Words he wouldn’t utter before, flowing from his mouth with ease. Perhaps the certainty of death and mortality allows us all to reconsider many of our harmful positions. But de Klerk goes to his grave with many untold secrets, and without properly and honestly accounting to families whose loved ones were murdered by the party and government he served for decades.”

But, whatever his morals and motivations, de Klerk did the deed.  He sat down and negotiated an end to apartheid in South Africa.  Where is Israel’s de Klerk?

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

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  1. Good question. Does the apartheid in Israel need to become even more entrenched and obvious before the leaders recognize how pernicious it is, and before an awakening and repentance happens? Will the parallels between Israel and South Africa be recognized to the degree that leaders will act proactively now toward a more just future?

  2. I wrote years ago, in response to the question “When will the Palestinians have a Mandela?” that whoever was leading the PLO when a de Klerk appeared — and succeeded — would be the Palestinian Mandela.

    De Klerk is one of my heroes, like Gorbachev, but de Klerk didn’t do it alone. First of all, there had to be enough pressure on the RSA for de Klerk to succeed at what he did. The boycott and especially sanctions were effective — the RSA had been kicked out of the Commonwealth and international sports, etc. Many whites thought De Klerk a traitor, but many others felt the end of Apartheid was inevitable.

    So to be a De Klerk, you have to be a person of vision — seeing the end of Apartheid — and courage — standing up to your own people. But you also have to be successful. Imagine if, just before de Klerk stepped down, if he had been assassinated by a white nationalist and the army had stopped the whole transition. In that case, de Klerk wouldn’t be de Klerk and Mandela wouldn’t be Mandela.

    So it’s possible that Israel had its de Klerk, in the person of Yitzhak Rabin. According to this theory, he had two out of three: the vision — the end of expansionist Zionism; and the courage to stand up to his own people; but not the success. He was executed. So now liberals and radicals argue about whether Rabin was saviour or shyster, just as South African liberals and radicals would be arguing about, had he been killed, de Klerk.

    Blessed are the peacemakers.

  3. We must remember that if de Klerk had not been a supporter of apartheid, he would not have become President and would never have been in a position to release Mandela and start the process of change. That suggests that if there is a future Israeli “de Klerk” he is now a strong Zionist and a supporter of settlement expansion.

    The analogy also suggests that if we are looking for a Palestinian Mandela we have to look in the Israeli prisons.

    Finally, we have to recognize the differences between the two situations. Because of the history of Israelis, they are paranoiacally afraid of the next genocide or some other form of ethnic cleansing. Those who devised apartheid knew that they were a minority in South Africa but they seemed to think that they were powerful enough to stay in control. That means that the Palestinian Mandela will have to work hard to convince everyone that Palestinians must seek equal rights, not superiority over Jews.

    1. David, thanks for your well considered thoughts. Analogies are often helpful, but it’s also instructive to remain aware of the dissimilarities of any comparison.

      1. Peter, I was supporting David’s points, including his last paragraph in which he named the dissimilarities, namely the paranoia some Israelis have of the next genocide, or of losing control if they give up their overbearing domination. The Afrikaners didn’t have the psychological wound of a recent holocaust in their collective consciousness, and they seemed to have less fear than the Israelis of retaliation by the people they so brutally oppressed.

    2. Hi, David. You write: “That suggests that if there is a future Israeli “de Klerk” he is now a strong Zionist and a supporter of settlement expansion.” That would have fit Rabin to a T.
      “If we are looking for a Palestinian Mandela we have to look in the Israeli prisons.” Many have suggested Marwan Barghouti, in jail since 2002, might fit the bill.
      “The Palestinian Mandela will have to work hard to convince everyone that Palestinians must seek equal rights not superiority over Jews.” That points at a huge difference. The Palestinians will have to convince the world that no Jews will be hurt in making Palestine. The Nazis hadn’t killed 6 million Afrikaaners; unlike the Jews, Afrikaaners were not a liberal cause.

      1. Hey Arthur,
        Rabin did want peace with the Palestinians, but he wanted to keep all the land Israel had taken in ’48 and did not want to allow the refugees to return. A comparison might have been if de Klerk wanted to give equality to indians and coloured, but not to Blacks because it would be “unrealistic”.

  4. I certainly remember De Klerk’s defence of apartheid or at least South Africa’s dilemna of being targeted for it’s apartheid regime in addressing Canada’s multiple faces pertaining to our official and non-official tratment of our own Indigenous peoples.
    In my life time it was the first time a foreign leader had addressed Canadians over our own sordid history.
    Most certainly it was a case of kettle condemning pot, but once out on the table, our own shortcomings were there for the world to wonder.

  5. Peter, this i from wikipedia …

    2. Permanent status negotiations will commence as soon as possible …

    3. It is understood that these negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest.

    4. The two parties agree that the outcome of the permanent status negotiations should not be prejudiced or preempted by agreements reached for the interim period.

    It’s hard to predict the future; and it’s hard to know what’s in a person’s — especially a politician’s — minds, because they always have an interest in less than complete transparency. We know that what Rabin did say got him killed. And we definitely don’t know what would have come out of negotiations with Rabin participating. The ANC got more than de Klerk believed he was willing to give.

    So, exactly as I wrote: because Rabin was killed, “liberals and radicals argue about whether Rabin was saviour or shyster, just as South African liberals and radicals would be arguing about, had he been killed, de Klerk.” So: it’s impossible to know if there’s an Israel de Klerk or a Palestinian Mandela until there’s some kind of successful resolution.

  6. Thanks for this Peter. As I recall Canada had a rather strong position against Apartheid during the Brian Mulroney years, with Stephen Lewis leading the charge as Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations. So the question now is where is Canada’s commitment to end the tragic situation of the Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories which many have described as apartheid.

  7. Before we bestow much praises of Rabin, it should not be overlooked what exactly him and his advisers proposed. As far as I thought he offered 18% autonomy, with promise of future negotiations. We all know what Israeli negotiations mean, just that negotiations.

    Anyway about six moth ago the was an hour documentary on the Oslo Accord, which said that the offer was only in single digit. (don’t remember exact number). Also said that had in the negotiation team the best lawyers, advisers from around the world, where Arafat had a few who did not even understand the real jargon. It should be remembered that no Israeli government meant to give away the land. Therefore they built settlements all over the West Bank and filled them up with the most radicals, exactly to eliminate ever mass evacuation. Rabin was among the ones who built more settlements than others.

    It was mentioned above that Palestinian Madelas are in prison. Add to that the ones who had been assassinated, many of them.

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