Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a little problem balancing budget concerns with statecraft: Back in May, he spent $127,000 on “an in-flight rest chamber” for his trip to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral (in addition to the $300,000 El Al was already set to receive for transporting him).
Cut to this weekend, when Netanyahu announced he would be begging off of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, because attending would be too costly.
Now, to be sure, the projected bill for getting to and from Johannesburg—between the flight itself and all the special planning and security apparatus involved—was mindboggling: $1.9 million, all told. Flying heads of state around the globe and making sure they complete the journey in one piece is not cheap.
But it’s worth considering just what Netanyahu is willing to spending Israel’s money on (in addition to a super-fancy bed): $2,700 a year on ice cream. $18,000 on clothes, hair, and makeup (double the outlay of just a few years ago). $940,000 on three separate residences. $52 million on compensating settlers for not being allowed to build in the course of a settlement freeze that was more Potemkin’s village than freeze—not to mention billions in the settlements that have already been built and those that are on the way. Suddenly, expensing $1.9 million to pay his nation’s respects to one of history’s greatest men sounds like a bargain, doesn’t it?
In all honesty, I don’t pretend to understand the workings of the Prime Minister’s mind, nor that of his coalition and/or security detail. There may be a whole host of reasons that paying homage to Mandela would not appeal.
First, it’s not impossible to imagine that many South Africans might not welcome Netanyahu with open arms (nor he, them). While it’s true that Mandela strove toward nonviolence and ultimately worked with old enemies, it’s equally true that he never renounced the right of the oppressed to resist their oppression.
“We know too well,” Mandela told a Pretoria audience in 1997, “that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Israel’s continuing occupation of millions of Palestinians looks every day more and more like the apartheid that South Africa has left behind (no matter how imprecise the term might be in this case), and one would be hard-pressed to argue that, despite his decades-long lip service to the peace process, Netanyahu shows any genuine interest in ending it. Then there’s the fact that the Prime Minister and his far-right government are currently trying to forcibly move some 40,000 native people—Israeli citizens who happen to be Bedouin—off their lands and into townships. It could, in a word, get awkward.
On the other hand, maybe it’s the planned presence of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani? After all, Netanyahu and his government have spilled gallons of ink and millions of pixels demonizing Rouhani to the point of self-satire—that, too, could get fairly awkward. (Who hasn’t looked across the room at a crowded funeral and wished that guy wasn’t there, too?)
There are, no doubt, genuine security concerns—though whether these might be bigger or substantially different from those faced by President Barack Obama is an open question. Aside from anything else, I think it’s a fair bet to say that South Africa is deeply invested in not letting any world leaders get killed in Johannesburg tomorrow. Call it a hunch.
I will even acknowledge that $1.9 million is not chump change—but as Bradley Burston wrote in Haaretz this morning: “Netanyahu seems to be suggesting: I have learned my lesson…. I will economize. No more empty frills. Like the Mandela funeral.”
Finally, it’s worth noting that not attending the service frees Netanyahu up to oversee the passage of a bill (condemned by, among others, Amnesty International, and contrary to a ruling by Israel’s own High Court) that will allow Israeli immigration authorities to detain African asylum seekers for up to a year in a purpose-built facility in the desert. So, you know: Priorities.
As Burston wrote, Netanyahu’s over-all message is clear:
My Israel, which spends untold tens of millions on such matters as bolstering and protecting settlement construction during peace negotiations with the Palestinians, or erecting detention facilities for African asylum seekers rather than formulating coherent and just refugee policies, has nothing left over for this man Mandela.
But that's only the beginning. With a wink and a nod to the settler right, the academic rabid right, and the KKK-esque far right, Netanyahu is sending an even stronger message:
This is where I stand on this Palestinian-lover, Mandela. And this is where I stand on his Palestinian-lover heirs.
I don’t know what’s going on in Netanyahu’s mind, but I am pretty clear on one thing: It’s not really about the bottom line. All I wish at this point is that he’d stop acting like he expects me to believe it.