Despite his sometimes overt identification with the Palestinian cause, Israeli leaders joined others across the world early Friday in mourning the passing of South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela the night before.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mandela was “a figure that set one of the greatest examples in our time. He was a father to his people, a man of vision, a freedom fighter who opposed violence.”
“He will be remembered as a moral leader of the first order,” the prime minister said in a statement.
Mandela, known affectionately by his countrymen as Madiba, died Thursday night surrounded by his family at his Johannesburg home, South African President Jacob Zuma announced just before midnight on Thursday. He was 95.
The first black president of the country, Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison as a leader of the struggle against white rule in the country, transforming himself into an international anti-oppression symbol. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last white leader, in 1993 and served as the country’s president from 1994 to 1999.
President Shimon Peres called Mandela “a leader of immense stature who changed the course of history.”
“On behalf of the citizens of Israel we mourn alongside the nations of the world and the people of South Africa, who lost an exceptional leader. Nelson Mandela was a fighter for human rights who left an indelible mark on the struggle against racism and discrimination.”
Mandela’s relationship with Israel was fraught with complications. In the name of reconciliation, he made no big deal about Jerusalem’s strong long-term partnership with the apartheid regime after he was released from prison. He professed the legitimacy of Zionism as Jewish nationalism and, upon receiving the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, he said Yitzhak Rabin deserved it more (Rabin was co-honored the following year).
But his primary concern in dealings with Israel’s government was the advancement of the peace process and the well-being of the Palestinian people.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quick to issue a statement after Mandela’s death, calling him an anti-colonialist and anti-occupation symbol.
“This is a huge loss for the Palestinians. He was the bravest and most important person who supported us,” he said in a statement.
Leaders around the world also remembered the life and legacy of Mandela, including US President Barack Obama, with whom he shares the distinction of being his nation’s first black president.
“He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages,” Obama said in a somber appearance at the White House.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” he continued. “And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”
Mandela died earlier Thursday at 95. He had spent much of the year in and out of the hospital, and his illness prevented a meeting with Obama when the US president visited South Africa this summer.
At a White House Hanukkah event held shortly after, Obama said Mandela was a “moral giant” who inspired millions worldwide with his dignity, courage and hope.
Both the White House and 10 Downing in London announced they would join South Africa in flying a flag at half-mast to honor Mandela.
“Nelson Mandela was a towering figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death — a true global hero,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “Across the country he loved, they will be mourning a man who was the embodiment of grace.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says Nelson Mandela was “a giant for justice” whose “selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom” inspired many people around the world.
“No one did more in our time to advance the values and aspirations of the United Nations,” Ban told reporters soon after Mandela’s death was announced Thursday.
Ban said he was deeply touched when he met Mandela at his residence in South Africa in February 2009.
“When I thanked him for his life’s work, he insisted the credit belonged to others,” Ban said. “I will never forget his selflessness and deep sense of shared purpose.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.