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Netanyahu to Skip Nelson Mandela Funeral

Citing cost, Israeli premier ignites a firestorm among detractors

Adam Chandler
December 09, 2013
Mourners gathered in front of the South African embassy to pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela on December 7, 2013 in Tehran, Iran.(Getty)
Mourners gathered in front of the South African embassy to pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela on December 7, 2013 in Tehran, Iran.(Getty)

Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his scheduled trip to South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, explaining that it would be too expensive.

Netanyahu had notified the South African authorities that he would fly in but cancelled his plans at the last minute due to the costs involved — around 7.0 million shekels ($2 million) for his transport and security alone, pubic radio and the Haaretz daily reported.

“The decision was made in light of the high transportation costs resulting from the short notice of the trip and the security required for the prime minister in Johannesburg,” Haaretz reported.

Haaretz did not just report, one of its columnists came out swinging against the decision. Quoth Bradley Burston: “Israel’s prime minister proves he is not the smug, petty, vindictive, waffling, in-your-face insulting man he seems. He’s something worse.” Burston went on to accuse Netanyahu of “winking” at his right-wing constituency by making the decision.

Before this conclusion is considered, let’s say for a moment that cost was an issue and that Netanyahu really did want to go. It seems at least nominally worthwhile to mention that as this decision was being reached, this not-entirely-unrelated piece of news broke.

Shekel hovering dangerously clsoe to 3.5 to the dollar – 3.503. That’s .003 away from one of those psychological breaking points.

— Niv Elis (@TelANiv) December 9, 2013

Perhaps, also, it seems reasonable to take a look at Bibi’s statement on the passing of Mandela. Here’s a quote:

“He set a personal example for his country during the long years in which he was imprisoned. He was never haughty. He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred,” Netanyahu said. “He will be remembered as the father of the new South Africa and a moral leader of the highest order.”

Despite that really rhetorically unfortunate use of the H-word, this is not exactly faint praise.

OK! Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s gather the theories! Here’s one: With Netanyahu currently facing criticism about the use of public funds for the not-so-public interest (filling a swimming pool at one of his houses), skipping a costly trip to South Africa is a political opportunity to distance himself from the controversy and a recent misstep in which he was blamed for having a $127,000 bed installed on his plane so he could sleep on his way to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral earlier this summer.

Another motive suggested was the old tension between the Mandela government and Israel back in the 1990s. Elsewhere, it was suggested that this move is emblematic of the current distance between Pretoria and Jerusalem. Elsewhere, it was noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose coffers are not exactly cash-rich, would be there. Others suggested that Netanyahu’s decision had to do with the current uproar surrounding the debate over African migrants in Israel.

Basically, any motive you can ascribe to Netanyahu is being printed somewhere, which is the first problem. This decision invites an international Rorschach test to be conducted. Should Netanyahu join the 70-plus heads of state and former government officials in Soweto? Absolutely. Especially given that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will be in tow.

With Shimon Peres out with the flu, it looks like either Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will represent Israel instead. Amir Mizroch, who penned a fantastic essay about life in South Africa during Mandela’s release, offered this suggestion.

Israel should send an Ethiopian member of Knesset to #Mandela funeral. We have one of those right?

— Amir Mizroch (@Amirmizroch) December 9, 2013

As Lahav Harkov adds, the answer is yes. There are two and one of them, Pnina Tamano-Shata from Yesh Atid, is going. She is the first female Ethiopian Member of Knesset.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.