Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Like millions of people around the world, I watched the memorial service for Nelson Mandela last week and the celebration of an incredible life. The funeral service may have been the largest ever witnessed.
My wife, Myra, and I were in Washington, D.C. last week as the entire world was dealing with the expected but still very sad news of Mandela’s death. We were participating in the Saban Forum, which is an annual gathering of United States and Israeli leaders to discuss in significant detail every issue imaginable — and then some — between these two close allies. Thanks to Cheryl and Haim Saban, this forum has been a mainstay of U.S,-Israeli dialogue for the past 10 years. It was against this backdrop that the life, and death, of Nelson Mandela loomed large.
I remember that Myra and I, along with our friends, Marilyn and John Moran, had the honor of visiting with Mandela in his offices in Johannesburg some four years ago. It was not a long meeting — just under and hour — but it was one of the most meaningful ones I have ever had. We had just visited Robben Island and had been immersed in the personal history of Madiba when we got to have a conversation with the man who transformed not only a nation full of hate into one of understanding and caring but also, by doing so, spread a message of hope and reconciliation throughout the world.
Nelson Mandela was not a saintly man — he did suggest that if a saint was a sinner who kept trying then he would qualify — but he was a person whose life story was the embodiment of the theory of the better angels amongst us. He transformed a nation ripped apart by hate and oppression into one of aspiration and hope. And his message was heard around the globe.
At the Saban Forum, the major topics of discussion were the nuclear ambitions of Iran and the latest effort to negotiate a peaceful end to that country’s nuclear-tipped program, as well as the renewed effort at getting a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord to the finish line. Both have proved to be very difficult undertakings, to be sure.
Our special and most informative guests included President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Those are the people, under the special rules of the orum, whom I can talk about. The others, and what they had to say, will remain less transparent.
What we took away from the forum, however, was that this world is at another crossroads. Certainly, defusing a nuclear bomb threat and transforming the entire Middle East into a land of milk and honey holds a certain promise that success would be huge for everyone in the world who values peace and prosperity. So while I can’t say specifically what the speakers and participants said, it is really what they didn’t say that has the take-home value.
There was no talk about guarded optimism, no blustery language calculated to incite a response, no suggestion of enthusiasm that was not matched by facts to support it, and no back-slapping and premature congratulatory gestures that have always fallen short.
So when the people in the trenches doing the hard work and the people who are pulling the strings and creating expectations from their various national capitals are not saying very much — even in the confines of a protected conclave that is the Saban Forum — that tells me we could be close.
I thought about what success might mean in that very dangerous part of the world as I also thought about the passing of Mandela, an international icon who has been compared to men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and I wondered about the connection between the two events.
This was a moment when the passing of one great statesman and peacemaker could lead to the potential for new statesmen and peacemakers to take that long walk from the prison of the past into a reconciliation for the future.
Whether it is Iranian nuclear intentions or peace prospects between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors, the path toward peace and prosperity is not a secret. It is well known and has been for a long time. The challenge has always been whether the leaders of the countries involved will recognize the opportunity as it comes riding past their windows. Will they take the measured and calculated risk for peace, or will they let the opportunity just keep on going, leaving the challenge for another day and, perhaps, a harsher resolution?
When Nelson Mandela did the remarkable — forgive his jailers and the people who imprisoned him for 27 years — he chose to take that risk for the good of his people, his country and the world.
The leaders in the Middle East who are being supported and encouraged by so many of the people who were at the Saban Forum last week may soon be in a position similar to Mandela when he stepped out of his prison cell.
What remains to be answered is whether they will have the courage and the wisdom to step away from the past and into a very bright future.
When we visited with Nelson Mandela, even as a weakened and aging man, he exuded that special quality that made his words, his smile and that twinkle in his eyes convey hope for the future. That’s the hope that stirs people — and countries — to dare to take steps in the direction of good.
I thought about that special quality as I listened for what wasn’t being said in Washington last week. All the while I was hoping that finally, this was the opportunity for people to take the risk for a better, a much better, life.
Rest well, Mr. Mandela, and may you continue to inspire all those who have a chance to follow your lead.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.