While dozens of heads of state and prime ministers came to Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday, Israel was represented by a parliamentary delegation following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to spend millions of shekels on a flight.
After Mr Mandela’s death on Thursday night, discussions began between the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and the offices of the Prime Minister and the President on how Israel should be represented at the memorial service in Soweto.
On Friday, President Shimon Peres expressed his intention to attend but Mr Netanyahu’s aides said that the Prime Minister was considering going himself and the plans for Mr Peres’s flight were put on hold.
On Sunday afternoon, it was announced that Mr Netanyahu and his wife would go but, just three hours later, his office said that due to the heavy cost of chartering an El Al plane for the delegation and flying armoured limousines out on an Israel Air Force transport, which amounted to around NIS 7 million (£1.2m), the Prime Minister would not be going. By this stage, there were no direct scheduled flights from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg and the President’s doctor forbade Mr Peres, who is suffering from flu, from boarding an arduous non-direct flight.
In the end, Israel was represented by a delegation of Knesset members headed by Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who flew in a small chartered plane via Djibouti.
“It doesn’t reflect well on Israel that we didn’t send one of our leaders to such an important international event,” said a senior Israeli diplomat. “There was enough time to prepare plans, especially as Mandela was very ill for a long time. Netanyahu attended Margaret Thatcher’s funeral this year and the fact that neither he nor Peres came to Mandela’s memorial is glaring.”
Mr Netanyahu’s visit to London in April for the Thatcher funeral caused a minor scandal after it emerged that the chartered El Al flight had cost NIS 500,000 (£90,000) extra due to his office’s demand that a double bed be installed in the plane.
Due to political and media pressure, government plans to purchase a passenger plane for VIP trips have been cancelled despite the fact that, in the long run, this would be cheaper than chartering planes.