By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
A report published some ten days ago revealed details of expenses (paid by the sate) that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his household incur in his official residence in Jerusalem and in his private home in Caesarea (where the family is said to spend weekends). The sums are large, the details astonishing and trivial, but gossip columnists and serious commentators alike have had much to say about it all.
Netanyahu has now cited the expenses mini-scandal as a reason for not attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral. His office said that it would cost millions of shekels for him, his entourage and the security detail to attend. (For whatever reasons, he has also decided not to go to the Biennial of the American Reform movement in San Diego. He will address the delegates via satellite.)
President Peres would have been at the funeral but it was reported that his doctor wouldn’t let him travel because he has the flu.
Whereas Peres’ absence isn’t seen as political, Netanyahu’s is. Not long ago he had installed a very expensive double bed in the plane that took him to London to the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. Is it because he identified with Thatcher’s politics and mourned her passing but wishes to distance himself from what Mandela stood for?
The commemoration in Johannesburg was a world happening and thus an opportunity to showcase Israel while paying tribute to the most significant personality of our time. Are there, therefore, unstated reasons for Netanyahu’s staying away? Does it have to do with Israel’s ties with South Africa in its apartheid days? Or did he really mean it when he said that he wanted to save money?
Israel was represented by the Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein and a number of Knesset members. The Speaker is the usual deputy for the President on state occasions if the latter cannot attend, but Edelstein should probably have been there whether or not Peres and Netanyahu came. He had been a prisoner of Zion in the gulag before coming to Israel and thus had something very important in common with Mandela.
The South African Jewish community is reported to be angry that Israel’s Prime Minister wasn’t there to represent the Jewish state and thus symbolically identify with the struggle against apartheid. It has been said that despite Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinians and his support for their cause, he had very good relations with local Jews and considerable respect for Israel, if not for its government. The late Cyril Harris as the Chief Rabbi of South Africa blessed Mandela and his wife at their wedding.
In view of the many challenges that the Prime Minister of Israel is facing today – Iran; negotiations with the Palestinians; cracks in his coalition, etc. etc. – his not being at the funeral doesn’t seem to be that serious a matter, but it has provided his critics with barbs that he could have done without.
Which, of course, leads to the question: does he get good advice from his staff or, as we’ve come to fear, is it his wife’s “intuition” that decides such matters? As difficult as it may be to draw conclusions, it’s impossible not to ask questions abut what makes Netanyahu tick.
I wrote this a day or so ago but hesitated to post it in case it sounds too mean and petty. But as it has become a hotly debated issue here, you may wish to know about it.