The greatest statesmen and women of our day gathered Dec. 10 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honour the late Nelson Mandela. It was a touching ceremony, as everyone knew it would be, but particularly so because of its celebratory nature. The tens of thousands of rain-drenched South Africans in attendance were more often than not exuberant – though they were quite the opposite when their current president, Jacob Zuma, stepped to the microphone. U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech brimmed with optimism (and he took a selfie!), while our former prime minister, Kim Campbell, danced up a storm and went viral in the process. Somehow, it all seemed to work, given the spirit of the man everyone had come to pay their respects to.
Conspicuously absent from the proceedings was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The official explanation as to why he declined the invitation was that his flight and security requirements would have cost too much – 7 million shekels (about $2 million) to be exact – but, pardon the pun, that’s rich. The prime minister hasn’t been shy about spending Israeli taxpayers’ money frivolously, as evidenced by recent revelations he shelled out tens of thousands of dollars on luxuries such as scented candles, a vacation home and an ice cream fetish. Netanyahu, it was reported in May, even spent $127,000 on a special sleeping cabin for a plane ride to London – to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Now he’s suddenly pinching pennies?
I suspect Netanyahu was fully aware of how lame his excuse sounded, and that, even so, it was preferable to voicing the real reason he avoided the memorial, which was politics, plain and simple. Mandela was a champion of the Palestinian statehood movement and a friend of Yasser Arafat – there’s no doubt about it. That’s why Netanyahu stayed away: to show the world he’s in no mood to discuss a Palestinian state. (Apparently no one told him that Mandela was a friend to Israel, too, even though Jerusalem was decidedly unfriendly to him and his cause at times – Mandela was able to see more than black and white, good and bad, Israeli and Palestinian. That was his special gift.)
In his stubbornness, Netanyahu displayed a crucial character flaw: an inability to read the geopolitical winds and act accordingly. The central theme of the memorial in Johannesburg was reconciliation, as it was for the vast majority of Mandela’s political career and all of his post-presidential years. Last Tuesday was a manifestation – a very rare one – of global goodwill, or at least as close as we ever get to it, and Netanyahu failed to take advantage by joining in. That has quite likely cost him points on the world stage.
No one was asking the Israeli prime minister to deliver a eulogy. All he had to do was show up and smile – that would have been appropriate enough. And who knows? Maybe Netanyahu would have learned a thing or two while he was in Johannesburg – such as that great leaders have the power to make us all believe in each other’s inherent goodness, even if the effect only lasts for the briefest of moments.