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From 1992 to 1994, Alon Liel was Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. During that crucial period, South Africa’s leaders were in the throes of negotiations for a peaceful resolution of what appeared to be intractable barriers preventing a transition to democracy. Soon after his arrival in the country, Liel met with Mandela; a warm friendship developed between them. There were some in Israel and in the South African Jewish community who were critical of Mandela for his close ties with Yasser Arafat and with a PLO that at the time refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
From 1991 to 1994, I led the “Goldstone Commission,” which had been appointed by all the parties to the South African peace negotiations to investigate the causes of political violence in the country. I was in regular touch with Mandela, and on a few occasions we had discussed the possibility of him visiting Israel. While expressing keen interest in doing so, he made it clear to me that he would not be willing unless he could, on the same visit, travel to the West Bank and meet with the Palestinian leaders. The violence that was at that time accompanying the first intifada made this prospect unlikely.
One evening, some weeks later, he called me at home to inform me enthusiastically that, given the lull in the Middle East violence, he had just agreed in the coming months to visit Israel and the West Bank. He expressed his excitement at the prospect and looked forward to meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As soon as we had ended our conversation I called Liel to express my delight. He was surprised that I had any knowledge of the visit, and said that he had received Mandela’s agreement only a few minutes earlier.
It was a matter of great regret to many in Israel and the South African Jewish community that further outbreaks of violence caused the visit to be canceled. I know that this was also to his regret. It was only some years later, in October 1999, that Mandela, who at that time was no longer president, visited Israel and the West Bank. Leaders of the South African Jewish community joined him in Israel. When he greeted Harris, he said, “Now I feel at home — my rabbi is here.”
During his presidency of South Africa, Mandela had a warm relationship with the leaders of the Jewish community and spoke regularly at the opening ceremonies of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. In 2000 he officially opened the South African Jewish Museum, in Cape Town.
Richard Goldstone is a former South African judge and prosecutor. He served as chief prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.