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Sharansky Meets with Mandela, but Fails to Sway Him on the PLO

July 2, 1990
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Natan Sharansky reminded Nelson Mandela on Friday that Israel was one of the first nations to condemn apartheid, and he expressed the hope that the terrorist nature of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Libya would ultimately become apparent to the black South African leader.

The two former prisoners of conscience met privately for half an hour at Mandela’s hotel after a series of on-again, off-again arrangements that the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith negotiated with Mandela’s entourage.

Although Sharansky participated in the meeting as a private person, he served as the de facto ambassador of Jews who had been disturbed by Mandela’s earlier praise of PLO leader Yasir Arafat, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro as comrades in arms.

In a nationally televised program two weeks ago, at the beginning of his triumphant U.S. tour, Mandela said the African National Congress identifies with the PLO, “because, just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.”

Mandela, who is deputy president of the ANC, left immediately after the meeting with the former refusenik. Sharansky then conducted an impromptu news conference, which he cut short, because “Shabbat is starting in 20 minutes, and I don’t want to go by foot for two hours.”

Sharansky said Mandela had embraced Arafat, literally and figuratively, because the PLO had aided him in difficult times. He said Mandela did not accept his argument that the PLO and the Arab nations are out to destroy Israel.

“I pointed out that the Western countries in World War II were allies of Stalin and that for a long time they didn’t understand the real nature of the Soviet regime,” Sharansky said.


In the same vein, he said, when it becomes clear to Mandela that Arafat and Gadhafi are men who can destroy but not create, the South African leader will start to change his attitude.

Sharansky also told Mandela that Jews had backed the struggle for human rights over the centuries and that they had not weakened their support by settling in Israel.

These differences notwithstanding, Sharansky said his meeting with Mandela and his wife, Winnie, was “very warm.” Mandela said that he had avidly read Sharansky’s book, “Fear No Evil,” while imprisoned.

“Despite different circumstances, we found that our experiences as political prisoners were more or less the same,” Sharansky said. “We agreed that to survive, there could be no compromise with our basic principles and beliefs.”

Sharansky said he invited Mandela to visit Israel. The black leader said he would be happy to consider an official invitation.

Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years by the South African authorities, while the Soviets held Sharansky as a prisoner for nearly nine years.

During a two-minute photo session, Mandela jokingly apologized for towering over Sharansky by almost a foot.

Sharansky responded that in prison, where issued clothing was always too small, it was an advantage to be short, because the uniform covered his entire body during the cold winters.

“Where I was, it was very hot,” Mandela shot back with a smile.

Earlier, during a reception at City Hall, Rabbi Harvey Fields met briefly with Mandela in his capacity as co-chairman of the Black-Jewish Clergy Alliance of Los Angeles.

When Fields told Mandela he had just come from a meeting of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis in Seattle, which had reaffirmed its support for him and the ANC, Mandela responded, “Your support means a great deal, more than you can possibly imagine.”

Mandela concluded his visit here with an evening rally for 70,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Before it began, a small twin-engine plane circled above the stadium, trailing a banner that said, “Palestinians Welcome Mandela.”

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