Why aren’t Netanyahu and Peres going to Johannesburg for Mandela’s memorial?

Bibi says it’s the expense, Peres says it’s a flu he can’t kick. More likely it’s two other reasons: Israel’s past and present.  

Nelson Mandela’s death brought up some inconvenient memories for Israel and the Diaspora Jewish establishment: Israel’s extremely fruitful alliance with apartheid South Africa until the very, very end; the anti-Mandela stance of right-wing Zionists because of his support for Arafat and the PLO (as well as for Gadhafi); and mainstream South African Jewry’s comfort with the apartheid regime (notwithstanding the brave opposition by a greatly disproportionate number of the country’s Jews). Then there’s the present-day, ongoing inconvenience of the similarity between apartheid and the occupation, and the awkwardness of having to praise a man who chose violence over submission while vilifying Palestinians who make the same choice.

It seemed, though, that this embarrassment over the Israel-South African apartheid alliance was going to blow over; official Israel and its supporters obviously were stonewalling the subject, it was just a few pain-in-the-ass leftists who kept harping on it; in another day or two they’d get tired.

But now this embarrassment has been shoved into the spotlight by none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. They’re doing what no national leader in his right mind would dare do: They’re snubbing Mandela’s memorial service  in Johannesburg.

Since Mandela’s funeral in his rural birthplace next Sunday is going to be a more intimate affair with no foreign VIPs invited, Tuesday’s memorial service, because of Mandela’s uniquely exalted stature, is going to be the most prestigious event since I don’t remember when.  Presumably every head of state in the world will be there – except Israel’s.

On Monday, Netanyahu announced he was going to Johannesburg with his wife Sara, then a few hours later he changed his mind, saying the expense was too high – nearly $2 million. This was a jaw-dropper coming from the guy who, with his wife, spend the public’s money on personal luxuries like no Israeli prime minister and wife every have; Bibi and Sara are Israel’s Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Besides, Israel is going to send somebody to the Mandela service, reportedly either Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni; how much cheaper can it be to send one of them and their bodyguards instead of Bibi, Sara and theirs – especially if Sara were to stay home, which would save a bundle, and if Bibi were to travel like a mortal for once instead of an emperor, which would save a bundle more?

When Bibi begged off, President Shimon Peres was at first going to take his place, but then Peres dropped out, too, saying he’s still getting over the flu. Okay, he’s 90; it’s possible he’s staying away for genuine health reasons. But I don’t believe it. Peres is the biggest glory-hog in the world, and at the Mandela service, the highest-prestige event in memory with all the world’s highest and mightiest in attendance, he would be the elder statesman, the man of peace – the Israeli Mandela, may God forgive us. Everything else being equal, it would take much, much more than the remains of a flu to keep Peres away from that. No, I think his real reason for staying home is the one Yediot Ahronot columnist Eitan Haber, who has stood at the nexus of this country’s military, government and media power for 50 years, ascribed to Netanyahu:

Israel  in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a full, enthusiastic partner of the apartheid regime. Until this day, millions of South African citizens have not forgotten nor forgiven Israel’s role. … Yesterday’s announcement of the cancellation of Netanyahu’s flight to the ceremony shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The leader has not yet been born who will knowingly step into a boiling pot of hatred and contempt. Netanyahu, if he were to go to the funeral,  could attract headlines in the world media – negative ones. It’s a great honor to stand at a funeral alongside the presidents of the United States and other countries, next to kings, prime ministers, princes and the who’s who of the world. But it’s a very small honor indeed to have hundreds of TV cameras aimed at you when you are rejected, ostracized, disgraced.

I agree; I think Bibi didn’t want to take the chance of being booed and picketed and screamed at because of Israel’s past in South Africa and its present in Palestine. I think Peres has the same motivation, even more so; the irony of Haber’s column, written before Peres made his flu announcement, is that it alludes to the president’s history with apartheid, then praises him for having the courage to make the trip! Enjoy:

To a great extent, it can be said that Peres took his life into his hands when he decided [Sunday] night to represent the State of Israel at the memorial service for the father of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela. It’s so in character for him: Peres doesn’t give a damn about the wave of criticism he can expect. He’ll be there – in Johannesburg.

Yeah, well. So Edelstein or Livni will go there and take the risk of being trashed in the highest-profile setting imaginable; one of them will get the booby prize. The way I see it, Bibi and Sara kicked it down to Peres, who kicked it down to Edelstein or Livni. (I’m betting it’s Livni who goes; she’s become the government’s occupation-with-a-human-face to the world – only I’m not sure they’ll recognize her as such in Johannesburg like they do in Washington and Brussels.)

Bibi and Peres’ excuses notwithstanding, I think their no-shows at the Mandela service can be put down to the wages of sin. Or to simple justice: What goes around, comes around.