February 2 marks the 21st anniversary of South African president F.W. de Klerk’s opening address to the nation’s parliament in which he announced sweeping and dramatic changes to the government’s policies.
Among these changes were the unbanning of over thirty political organizations, the beginning of the process of dismantling the race-based system of oppression known as apartheid, and the declaration of intent to begin negotiations to move the country toward full democracy.
Further, in front of the whole world, Mr. de Klerk announced that the South African government would be releasing its most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, without any preconditions.
This move required much courage on the part of de Klerk. While hailed by many of his countrymen and the international community as a completely unprecedented move in the right direction, his actions went against the views of many of the more traditional politicians and voters in his own party. It was no doubt seen as a betrayal by many of his colleagues and supporters. But what was done, was done. And 22 years later, he is remembered around the world for his courage, boldness and foresight.
De Klerk was not the first statesman to encounter such a crossroads in his political career (Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday anniversary is just ten days from now, comes to mind), and he certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, many leaders will find themselves faced with a choice between that which is easy and that which is right for both the nation and its people.
One such politician is Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a member of the conservative Likud party and characterized as one of Israel’s “war hawks.”
His tenure as Prime Minister has seen no real progress towards resolution of the conflict with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors. Refusal to halt the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is partially responsible for this. Such actions paint a picture of a man and a government who are not really interested in negotiation.
Although the Israeli and South African situations differ in several important respects, there is still much that Netanyahu can learn from de Klerk’s example. Israel is threatened by constant attack from militants in the Palestinian territories, a situation similar to that faced by de Klerk. And like South Africa, negotiation and cooperation is the best way to put a stop to the attacks.
Without negotiation, Israel cannot realistically expect the terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to come to an end. Rockets will likely continue to terrorize innocent Israeli citizens for as long as extremist factions in the Palestinian camp feel they “must” resort to violence to achieve their political aims. Only when Israel begins to earnestly seek resolution will the violent methods of Palestinian militants be deemed unacceptable by the people themselves.
But negotiation will be seen as weak by many of Netanyahu’s conservative colleagues and supporters. His willingness to “negotiate with terrorists” could potentially cost him his job as Prime Minister.
Much like de Klerk did in 1990, Netanyahu has a decision to make. He can either continue with the current governmental policies and put politics before the Israeli and Palestinian people, or he can take a courageous step toward ending the conflict that has plagued the region for so long.
If he so chooses, he can go down in history as one of the bold leaders who challenged the status quo: leaders such as de Klerk, Lincoln, and Israel’s own Menachem Begin. Or he can be remembered for his lack of leadership during a time of crisis, and his unwillingness to put the people first.
The choice is up to him.