Why Netanyahu was wrong over Mandela

There is an idle habit I picked up in childhood which I have never quite shaken off. I suspect there are other JC readers who share it too. When confronted with any kind of list of the world’s nations, my eye runs an instinctive, involuntary check to see if Israel is among them. Flags flying outside a hotel or along a boulevard: I look for the blue and white. In the lobby of an airport, where ‘welcome’ is spelled out in dozens of different languages: I search for the distinctive script that says Baruch Habah. Those bars where the enterprising landlord has collected the world’s banknotes under glass: I won’t rest till I’ve spotted the head of Moshe Sharett or SY Agnon.

I’m not especially proud of such a parochial impulse, but there it is: put it down to my upbringing. But events in South Africa last week had me thinking of it in a new way.

The memorial service for Nelson Mandela turned out to be a shambolic affair – what with the rain, the half-empty stadium and the sign language interpreter who never was - but it was truly a global event. Television channels in every nation covered it and there were more current and former heads of government in one place than have gathered anywhere else in living memory. Not one US president or UK prime minister, but four of each.

I didn’t waste my time scouring the TV coverage looking for Israel’s president or PM because I knew they were not there. Shimon Peres was not well – a rare show of mortality from the 90 year old said to be planning his return to frontline politics when he vacates the presidency next year. Binyamin Netanyahu, however, was in perfect health. But he chose not to go, his office citing “the financial and logistic outlays” that sadly made the trip “impossible.”

True, ferrying Bibi to a foreign capital costs money. We found that out when the PM spent $427,000 http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-slammed-for-spending-127000-on-be... of Israeli taxpayers’ money to fly himself and wife Sara to London in April. The cost didn’t bother him then – even the extra $127,000 for a bespoke on-board double bedroom – because that trip was just too important to skip. He absolutely had to be at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. But Nelson Mandela? Not so much.

Much fun has been had about Bibi’s curious priorities. Economising when it comes to giving a final farewell to the liberator of South Africa, yet happy to bill the Israeli exchequer $2700 for top quality ice-cream http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahus-ice-cream-habit-cost-the-state-t... delivered to the PM’s residence. (He’s a sucker for vanilla sorbet and pistachio, since you ask.) But that’s not what mainly bothers me.

Rather it’s that childhood habit of mine, that desire to see Israel represented among the world’s peoples. The 19th century founders of modern Zionism were very clear on the project's purpose: to enable the Jewish people to re-join the family of nations, once more to stand among them not as tolerated guests but as equals.

Like it or not, last week was one of those moments when the family of nations gathered, from Iran to the US, Denmark to Cuba. By staying away, Bibi was saying that the Jewish people stands apart – aloof and, ultimately, alone. That may fit his vision of an embattled fortress Israel, forever in a state of siege – at odds with every global institution that matters. But it is not what Israel’s founders dreamed of. They wanted to look at the flags and faces of the world and at last see themselves among them. How strange that Israel’s leader does not respect that need at all – that he does not seem even to understand it.

Last updated: 8:16am, December 24 2013