Invictus: Home and Abroad

High on the list of potential award-winning films this year is Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, and featuring Morgan Freeman as former South African President Nelson Mandela. The example set by Mandela in political courage, reflected in the film, provides an interesting backdrop to the recent actions of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama.

The true story told in Invictus details the brave, wise and healing decision by the newly elected Mandela to maintain the name and colors of the Springboks, the national rugby team and a symbol of white minority rule, against the will of the black majority. Rather than following a vindictive “scorched earth” approach favored by some, Mandela emulated President Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy, “With Malice towards None; With Charity Towards All.”


With Mandela’s strong support and attention, the Springboks went on to win an improbable World Cup championship on their home soil against the heavily favored All Blacks national team of New Zealand. As a result of Mandela’s leadership and the Springboks’ success, South Africa’s population achieved considerable healing in the aftermath of Apartheid.

How can Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been regarded as a hard-line ultra-nationalist and supporter of Jewish settlement expansion, possibly be compared to Nelson Mandela? An excellent and thoughtful piece in The New York Times last week by Ethan Bronner posits that Netanyahu has assumed a “surprising role: peacemaker,” a shift which has confounded both his Likud colleagues and his leftist critics.

Bronner quotes from a piece by Aluf Benn, a senior columnist for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which pointed out that Netanyahu “was seriously interested in making concessions to the Palestinians and coming to an agreement on a two-state solution.”

Bronner notes that after a long career of supporting and expanding Israeli settlements and rejecting Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu said last June that he accepted the two-state idea. And three weeks ago, he imposed a 10-month freeze on building Jewish housing in the West Bank, “something no Israeli leader has done before.”

As a result of Netanyahu’s shift, “settlers are outraged” and the Prime Minister is “facing a rebellion within his own party.” Last month, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Israel, she warmly praised Netanyahu’s freeze on the settlements as “unprecedented.” In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Israeli military will be using “special forces and spy drones” to prevent any illegal settlement activity.

President Obama has similarly been roundly criticized not only by the extreme right, but also by supporters on the left as he has sought compromises to achieve passage of comprehensive health care reform and an agreeable set of resolutions at the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen.

But the fact remains that Obama has kept his eyes on the prize as distractions have abounded. As Chris Cillizza points out in The Washington Post’s “The Fix” column, “The (health care) bill may not be everything the president wanted and the process of getting legislation passed was VERY messy but the fact remains that Obama got a health care bill when his predecessors had failed to do so.”

Like it or not, this is what statesmen and stateswomen do. They see the future and, rather than hiding from its perils, embrace its hope. One does not have to like the outcome, but the fact remains that without compromise, without a nod to one’s adversaries (which sometimes requires a commensurate backturn to one’s backers), the chances of success are slim and the chances of healing are slimmer.

There are ample precedents throughout history for such shifts by world leaders, and they often result first in national angst but ultimately in political success. President Lyndon B. Johnson, for instance, was a master of brokering compromise who secured passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Medicare in 1965, despite displeased extremists on both the right and left. Previous Israeli Prime Ministers, such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, confronted hardline opposition to making peace with Israel’s neighbors and embraced it as a necessary gateway to the future. It was Charles de Gaulle, the favorite son of the French Army, who was able to grant Algeria its independence, and Richard Nixon, the hardline anti-Communist, who opened the door to diplomatic relations with mainland China.

Only history will determine if the acts of Netanyahu and Obama are the stuff from which monumental changes emerge. In the meantime, we can applaud their willingness to look beyond the junkyard politics of today in favor of the hopeful dreams of tomorrow.