The State of Israel may not send a senior political figure–either President Shimon Peres or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–to South Africa for the memorial or funeral of former President Nelson Mandela this week, citing costs and security concerns. Similarly, the Dalai Lama–often associated in popular culture with Mandela as a symbol of peace–will not be attending either, after being repeatedly denied entry visas.
The Dalai Lama’s absence is easier to understand. As South Africa and other African nations have moved closer to China’s orbit, they have become more accommodating of Chinese foreign policy preferences. The South African government has been prepared to appease the Chinese government’s wishes regarding the isolation of the Dalai Lama over the objections of local human rights activists and spiritual enthusiasts.
The Israeli decision is more difficult to decipher. The simplest explanation is probably the best: given the chaotic nature of the public events around Mandela’s memorial and funeral, the security risks for Israeli leaders may simply be too high in a country that has often been a conduit for radical Islamists. Yet it is also possible that Israel is aiming a diplomatic snub at the increasingly anti-Israel South African government.
Since Mandela left office, his political party, the African National Congress, has become vociferously anti-Israel, hosting the notoriously antisemitic Durban racism conference in 2001 and siding increasingly with the Palestinian cause, including expressions of support for Hamas in Gaza. The South African government now prevents its ministers from visiting Israel and has encouraged its citizens not to go to Israel, either.
Several years ago, Israel closed a trade mission in South Africa, citing cost concerns–the same reason that was given Sunday for not sending Peres or Netanyahu to the Mandela events. Quietly, Israeli officials made clear that the trade mission’s closure was a warning to South Africa, which enjoys a trade surplus with Israel, that its confrontational diplomatic stance would eventually have a real cost for South Africans.
With South Africa’s ruling party joining international boycotts of Israel, and Israeli ministers countering that Jews are unsafe in South Africa, it would be difficult for Peres and Netanyahu to make the trip, if only because doing so would open them to domestic criticism. At the same time, there will be diplomatic costs to staying away, as Israel’s opponents are eager to cast Mandela–however falsely–against the Jewish state.