/ 9 December 2013

Netanyahu raises suspicion, cancels Mandela funeral trip

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Many heads of state would not miss internationally renowned peace icon Nelson Mandela's funeral, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do just that. His reason: it is too expensive to travel to South Africa, according to Israel's Haaretz daily newspaper.

Over 70 state presidents and 10 former heads of state have confirmed with the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) that they're coming to bid farewell to Mandela and more are still sending confirmation, according to spokesperson Clayson Monyela. 

Netanyahu had initially notified the South African authorities that he'd join his other counterparts to honour Mandela but made a last minute cancellation because the $2-million needed for his transport and security alone was just too steep. 

Haaretz reported that a senior Israeli government official said Netanyahu had planned to attend Mandela's funeral on Sunday in Qunu, but opted for the memorial service when the South African government asked all heads of states to attend a Tuesday memorial instead, as the family had expressed a desire to hold a private funeral.

The decision to cancel the trip to South Africa during such an important period is likely to raise suspicion and remind many of a difficult relationship Tel Aviv has with Pretoria. A democratic South Africa has been struggling to maintain a good relationship with Israel, particularly during Mandela's presidency.

Mandela was the first democratically elected president of South Africa and took power from the apartheid government, which was Israel's strong ally when most countries of the world rebuked racial segregation.

Netanyahu, however, paid tribute to Mandela as "a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence".

Pretoria's 'anti-Israel stance'
In what will also not impress President Jacob Zuma's government, Haaretz reported in a separate article that South African-born Israelis say Mandela's legacy has been betrayed by Pretoria's "anti-Israel stance". The paper reported that while immigrants from South Africa mourned Mandela's death, they criticised the government's "antagonism" towards Israel. 

Haaretz quoted deputy director of Telfed, or the South African Zionist federation in Israel, Dorron Kline, as saying, "When Nelson Mandela was in power, South Africa was far more balanced in its approach to Israel. I think it was his personality and his outlook that kept things balanced. We'll feel his loss particularly in that sphere."

Mending relations after the end of apartheid has been a challenge, with diplomats from both sides speaking of a "not so perfect" relationship. Analysts described the relationship as "extremely complicated" and "jogging along at a low pace".

'Slowing down' relations
One of the sticking points is Pretoria's continued insistence that Tel Aviv should withdraw from all the entire occupied Palestine. International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane recently told a gathering of Cosatu leaders that South Africa was "slowing down" relations with Israel. 

Because of strong ties Israel enjoyed with apartheid South Africa, it took Mandela five years to accept an invitation to visit Tel Aviv. During his visit in 1999, Mandela told Israelis that after his release from prison in 1990 he had received invites to visit "almost every country in the world, except Israel".

Mandela, however, forgave Israel for the role it played in supporting apartheid and even mediated in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas is among heads of states who are scheduled to attend Tuesday's government memorial service for Mandela at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. – Additional reporting by Sapa