JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 21 (JTA) — Former South African President Nelson Mandela says he wants to play a mediating role in the Mideast, but has not abandoned the idea of violence if negotiations fail.
“If the only alternative is violence, we will use violence,” he told an enthusiastic Palestinian legislative assembly in the Gaza Strip this week.
Following two days of meetings with Israeli officials, Mandela received a hero’s welcome in Gaza, where he talk of the “long-standing bonds between our two liberation movements” and met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
A longtime supporter of the PLO, Mandela told reporters that “Israel should withdraw from all the areas which it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from south Lebanon and from the West Bank.”
While declaring himself to be sympathetic toward the Palestinians, Mandela also urged Arabs to grant Israel “firm and unequivocal” recognition of its right to exist within secure borders.
Previously, Mandela had visited Syria, Iran and Jordan during his first trip to the Middle East.
While in Tehran, he said, he spoke to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami regarding the plight of 13 Jews accused of spying for Israel and the United States.
Mandela conveyed Khatami’s assurances to Israeli President Ezer Weizman that the 13 would be given a fair trial with “full legal representation.”
Mandela also said that Israel is correct in asking for recognition from Arab nations.
“I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders,” Mandela said after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.
He also said he believes Syrian President Hafez Assad is committed to making peace with Israel.
“Syria is your neighbor. Take it from me, they are seeking a peaceful solution,” Mandela said in Israel in the presence of a South African delegation, which included Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Uri Oren; Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; Marlene Bethlehem, national president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies; and Russell Gaddin, the board’s national chairman.
Mandela expressed his “fascination” with development in Israel, saying the state could be an “economic powerhouse” in the Middle East.
The chief rabbi pointed out that South Africa could, in the same way, serve as an economic model to sub-Saharan Africa.
The South African delegation welcomed Mandela to Jerusalem, where a red carpet was laid outside the King David Hotel. The former president hugged Harris, a close personal friend, saying: “Now I feel at home. My rabbi is here.”
At the conclusion of the lunch, Mandela said: “One of the reasons I am so pleased to be in Israel is as a tribute to the enormous contribution of the Jewish community of South Africa. I am so proud of them.”
Mandela also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, saying he was “deeply pained and enriched” by the experience. He emphasized how important it is that the world not forget the Holocaust.
After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Monday, Mandela described him as “a man of courage and vision.
“The people of the world and Israel should support Barak — he has aroused our hopes,” he said.
Former South Africans Rabbi Dov Sidelsky and his wife, Naomi, who live in Jerusalem, attended the meeting at Barak’s invitation.
The rabbi is the son of Johannesburg lawyer Lazar Sidelsky, 88, who employed Mandela as a law clerk in the 1940s, when it was unheard of to give black people professional opportunities.
“Mandela knew Barry as a little boy and, when he came to my home, used to ruffle his hair in an affectionate manner,” Lazar Sidelsky said. “Mandela always promised me, if he went to Israel, he would definitely make contact with my son.
“Isn’t it incredible that, among all the bigger issues Mandela had to contend with, he kept this promise?”