With the death of Nelson Mandela, we've seen some pretty rancid grandstanding from Western politicians seeking to neuter or retroactively endorse his legacy while failing to account for their own governments' support for apartheid in South Africa. (And no, I'm not just talking about the fodder-for-John Stewart factories of the self-mocking right.) That's why it's so refreshing to see one world leader buck the trend, snub Mandela's ghost and take a clear stand on the South African freedom fighter's bequest to the world.
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel and foremost crush of American Congressmen, decided at the eleventh-hour not to attend Mandela's funeral.
And the reason is the kicker. Netanyahu claimed travel costs were too steep. Really.
This shouldn't be a surprise. We all know Netanyahu is a fiscal conservative. That's why in 2012 he charged the Israeli taxpayers 3.3 million shekels ($940,000) to "maintain" three of his houses — about $340,000 above budget. It's also why he spent $127,000 worth of Israeli taxpayer money on outfitting a private plane with a "resting chamber" — a double bed encased by four walls with an entryway — just for a five-hour ride in London.
One may call his decision to affront Mandela over price hypocritical. But in the context of Netanyahu's ideological views, it's actually quite consistent. And revealing.
At the time, the Israeli taxpayers were equipping their prime minister's jet a la Austin Powers, Bibi was planning to fly to London for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher, an unabashed reactionary with nothing but disdain for the proletariat, was someone worth making the trip for. Her neoliberal pillage of Britain's welfare state and public sector was a blueprint for Netanyahu's economic "reforms" during his first tenure at the helm in 1996 and later as minister of finance under Ariel Sharon — the same policies that begot the largest Israeli protest movement in history. There was the type of admiration that deserves a vitally equipped nap.
Roughly 400,000 Israelis protest the Netanyahu government's neoliberal economic policies, August 5, 2011 [credit: AP]
Thatcher was a member of a dying breed. She was an old-fashioned imperialist; a British nationalist determined to continue British dominion as long as possible. She ensured that no more territories were chipped away from the empire, even if it meant nuclear blackmailing an allied country. She once even recommended the ethnic cleansing of northern Irish Catholics.
Netanyahu is also a brazen imperialist. His ideology follows in the footsteps of his father, the historian Benzion, who was a secretary to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. Jabotinsky's strain of Jewish nationalism originally sought a Jewish state that would dominate the land from the Mediterranean Sea into what is now Jordan.
And Netanyahu has been gradually achieving that goal. He may have inherited the occupation, but his government has overseen the most expansive bouts of settlement growth since 1967. According to Israeli government figures, $2.5 billion was invested in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank from 2003-2011 (almost as much as is given in U.S. aid every year). In 2010-2012 alone, Netanyahu oversaw a 300% growth in settlement expansion. He even had to walk back an announcement last month that his government was planning to build 24,000 new units in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, lest his attempt to torpedo a nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran falter (it did).
New housing units being constructed in the Ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Modi'in Ilit, July 17, 2013 [credit: UPI]
And that's just in one of the occupied territories. In Israel proper, the Netanyahu government is now facing pushback for its plan to ethnically cleanse tens of thousands of Bedouin residents from their homes in the Negev desert to make way for new Jewish communities. As one supportive parliamentarian recently remarked of the objective: "[Just] as the Americans did to the Indians."
Then there are the similarities between apartheid laws and the legal regime of the West Bank; the type that haven't been lost on South Africa's post-apartheid leadership.
From 1948-1994, South Africa had laws that restricted where black South Africans could travel. Currently in the West Bank, Palestinian citizens are stymied in their ability to move freely. As the demand for black South African independence grew, Pretoria instituted a series of "bantustans" — sovereign, blacks-only areas — that became a series of territorially discontiguous free African states, headed by puppet regimes and unable to receive South African government services.
South Africa's network of "Bantustans", 1984 [source: Michigan State University]
Today, as seems to have been the intent, the West Bank resembles this Swiss cheese model. Palestinian-controlled enclaves are increasingly surrounded by strategically placed settlements (linked by segregated roads), checkpoints, and barrier walls.
Apartheid denied blacks the right to vote and to receive due process. Likewise, West Bank Palestinians live under military rule while their Jewish neighbors can vote and are subject to Israeli civil law.
Political map of the West Bank, post-Oslo Accords [source: UN/B'tselem]
And finally, there's the African National Congress's (ANC) views on the Israeli government. Mandela made no secret that he stood in solidarity with Palestinians. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great anti-apartheid activist, endorses the international call to "boycott, divest, and sanction" (BDS) Israeli institutions, as was done to isolate South Africa. In 2012, the ANC even voted to make BDS against Israel its official policy. Perhaps the ire has to do with Israel propping-up the apartheid-era regime for decades.
Whatever the immediate rationale, the Israeli leadership's choice to spurn Mandela's funeral speaks volumes. Whether he knows it or not, Netanyahu is passing up a chance to emulate another great South African leader, the overshadowed F.W. De Klerk, who successfully transferred power to the black majority while keeping rabid right-wing Afrikaners from spoiling the deal.
Then again, this all may be a bit overblown. It's not like Jerusalem skipped the funeral entirely. They just sent a settler instead.