As VIPs gathered in the rain for Nelson Mandela’s memorial in South Africa today, the emcee announced the attendance of world leaders from US President Barack Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Apparently, no one told him that Mr. Netanyahu couldn't make it after all.
While the Israeli leader's absence may have gone relatively unnoticed in South Africa, it has caused consternation in Israel. Detractors argue that missing the memorial of a man who championed freedom and brought down apartheid gives fresh fodder to critics who say Israel, too, has constructed an apartheid system and is insincere about reconciling with Palestinians after decades of conflict.
"The anti-Israel lobby could not have wished for a better Christmas present," wrote Times of Israel blogger Neil Lazarus, author of "The 5 Rules of Effective Israel Advocacy."
"Today, many of the pro-Israel organizations are having to employ damage control as the government’s shortsightedness has led once again to a self-made public relations mess."
Worse, said Mr. Lazarus and others, was the reason Netanyahu gave: the cost of the flight. This, coming from a man who budgeted 10,000 shekels ($2,850) for his personal ice cream parlor and spent 6,000 shekels ($1,700) of Israeli taxpayers' money on scented candles for his homes.
Netanyahu may well have learned his lesson on unnecessary spending, especially after a report last week revealed it costs Israeli taxpayers 3.3 million shekels ($940,000) to maintain his three residences. The trip to Mandela's memorial indeed would have been expensive; the Israeli government estimated it would have cost about 7 million shekels ($1.9 million) for the flight as well as the security necessary – far more than if Netanyahu had been able to attend the smaller ceremony in Mandela's home village this weekend, as originally planned. That reasoning sat particularly badly with South Africa’s Jewish community, which long donated more per capita to support Israel than Jews in America, Britain, and Canada.
But despite the considerable expense, the issue here has more to do with Israel's complex relationship with South Africa, wrote Ilene Prusher for the liberal Haaretz newspaper in a piece examining Mandela's views on Israel.
... tight budgets and sick notes do little to mask the lingering discomfort between the two nations. Jerusalem maintained close military and economic ties with Johannesburg even in the final days of the apartheid regime, when most of the world was backing away, and the then-leader of the African National Congress never forgot it,"
... he was indeed highly critical of the Israeli occupation and the absence of an independent Palestine from map of the world. But Mandela fully endorsed Israel’s right to exist – and thought the Arabs states would need to reconcile fully with Israel in the context of a peace agreement.
Palestinians have championed Mandela as one of their own, but most seem to agree that now is not the time or the place for Mandela-like gestures toward Israel. Perhaps Israel’s leader, too, is reluctant to take such a decisive step to support a man who so openly supported Palestinian statehood.