Israel's Costly Decision on Mandela Funeral

Perhaps Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a very valid and truly compelling reason for canceling his participation in the memorial for the late Nelson Mandela. If so, then I look forward to learning of so unlikely a situation. Until that time, as a pro-Israel Jew, I shall remain deeply ashamed.

Since I was born after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I only remember a few landmark state funerals, notable among them Yitzhak Rabin and Pope John Paul II. I don't recall any world leaders conspicuously missing either of those occasions. Rabin's ceremony, in particular, was on extremely short notice, as Jewish funerals take place within 24 to 48 hours after death -- and Rabin's death came very suddenly. Cost, security arrangements, prior engagements -- it's rare to hear such excuses for not attending (or backing out of) such an occasion. Arguably, Mandela has affected our world even more than either Rabin or John Paul.

Just as Mandela courted what were -- to many Americans and Israelis -- unseemly alliances to promote his uphill and just cause, so Israel maintained security and nuclear cooperation with the Apartheid regime. While Israel need not apologize for that past, its leaders might recognize the additional burden at this moment. Modestly mournful statements on his passing are not the same as showing up in person.

Aside from the humiliation factor for a people aspiring to be a Light Unto the Nations, this is a tremendous opportunity wasted. At a time when Netanyahu -- or any Israeli prime minister -- should be focused on maximizing the outcome of an interim Iran deal, compensating for expanding settlements and a declining Palestinian track, what better place to show the flag than at a live-streaming love fest for the global A-list?

As I argued recently, Netanyahu seems to be pushing an image of Israel as the new standout, rogue state. How better to continue that down-branding than by avoiding the fount of eternal political youth, the chance to mingle and be seen -- and to be photographed -- as a leader among leaders. Does Netanyahu intend to be seen as afraid to appear at the same event with Hassan Rouhani, the president of an otherwise unchallenged outcast Mideast state?

As Iran developments move beyond Israel's immediate control, as the peace process languishes and as the very fundamentals of the U.S.-Israel relationship are in need of daily and public reaffirmation, Africa and Asia are consistently offered up as the alternative, below-the-radar pickups for Israeli business and military cooperation. Anyone who's been thinking these channels were merely glib sound bites and convenient consolation prizes, should now be feeling vindicated. But attending this funeral, we are told, by a leader recently criticized for installing a six-figure bed for a four-hour flight, would be too costly.

Cost? Israel and Jewish organizations spend many millions each year on "hasbara," or pro-Israel public relations. Mandela's funeral is a gift to any leader seeking reputation repair or enhancement, which is why Zimbabwe's infamous Robert Mugabe was so insistent on attending this week. Reportedly, Netanyahu was advised by Israeli intelligence that anti-Israel rallies were likely should he attend, but the in-and-out nature of the event would afford no such risk and the wrath of Black South Africans toward their own current leaders is far more visceral.

Even if Israel doubles its entire PR budget for next year, it may not be able to compensate for the damage this absence will inflict on its image or the potential gains it forgoes. The value added would have gone far beyond PR to include whispered insights, diplomatic opportunities, bilateral ties, and outreach to -- and on behalf of -- South Africa's often isolated Jewish community.

Above all, this is a moral moment on the world stage, when Israel and the Jewish people deserved to be represented and led toward the greater good. If Netanyahu really harbors some secret reason why he could not travel to South Africa this week, let's hope it was worth it, because the costs are painfully evident.