Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision stood in contrast to the mad rush by world leaders to attend the event, and seemed to underscore the embattled Israeli leader’s isolation on the world stage. Nearly 100 heads of state, along with tens of thousands of mourners, are expected at the memorial in a Soweto soccer stadium.
Netanyahu, who is known to enjoy puffing on expensive cigars and sipping cognac, has come under criticism several times in recent months for his free-spending habits.
Last week, official records obtained by a civil liberties group showed that Netanyahu had spent $1,700 in government funds on scented candles and $22,000 on the water bill at his vacation home. The disclosures set off a national uproar and gave new fodder to critics and comedians.
Earlier this year, a TV station reported that Netanyahu spent $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a five-hour flight to London to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Netanyahu was forced to stop buying ice cream from his favorite Jerusalem parlor after an Israeli newspaper discovered his office was spending $3,000 a year for the treat.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had intended on attending the Mandela funeral, and Israel’s embassy in South Africa had even begun making preparations. The official said the prime minister changed his mind after learning about the high cost, as well as special “security challenges.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The trip was estimated to cost roughly $2 million, including a charter flight for Netanyahu’s entourage and a separate Hercules transport aircraft to carry security equipment. Later Monday, Israel said parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein would lead a small delegation of lawmakers to the funeral.
Bradley Burston, a commentator at the liberal daily Haaretz, said Netanyahu’s decision sent a bad message.
“My Israel, which so craves and demands legitimacy and recognition as a full partner in the community of nations, does not consider a man like Nelson Mandela, or a nation like South Africa, or the sentiment of an entire world, worth the price of a plane flight,” he wrote.
But the deeper issue may have been Netanyahu’s shaky reputation on the world stage, particularly among the dozens of leaders from the developing world who will be in attendance, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu is widely viewed as a hard-liner whose support for Jewish settlements in occupied lands is not conducive to peace.
Many in South Africa compare Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to apartheid-era South Africa, a charge Israel rejects, and Mandela famously said that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Last year, South Africa’s government decided that goods imported from Israeli West Bank settlements cannot not be labeled “product of Israel.” In 2011, the University of Johannesburg became the world’s first to impose an academic boycott on Israel.
“I think he should have said no from the beginning. Knowing Mandela and the circles around him … they dislike Netanyahu and his policies,” Liel said. “I don’t think South Africa would feel comfortable with his presence.”