Israel’s top leaders will be conspicuous by their absence at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, skipping a ceremony for the anti-apartheid hero world leaders are mourning and whom Palestinians have always viewed as their comrade in the struggle for freedom.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor President Shimon Peres will attend the event in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on Tuesday, officials said on Monday, citing costs and health reasons.
Peres, 90, had been advised by his doctors not to make the trip, according to aides.
“The president is recovering from flu and doctors advised him not to fly,” a spokesman for Peres said.
Israel was an ally of South Africa’s former apartheid rulers whose racial segregation Mandela fought and resisted, getting jailed for 27 years on Robben Island after being convicted of treason for his campaign.
Palestinians, who hail South Africa’s first black leader as an inspiration in a conflict with what they call Israeli “apartheid”, will be represented by President Mahmoud Abbas – one of about 70 world leaders South Africa expects to pay their respects.
Speaker or minister
Netanyahu hailed Mandela as “a freedom fighter who rejected violence”, although the African National Congress’s struggle against apartheid initially proved violent, leading Mandela to being labelled a “terrorist” by the US, Israel’s major Middle East ally.
Mandela was only removed from the US terror list in 2008.
A foreign ministry official said the speaker of parliament or a cabinet minister could represent Israel at the funeral.
Like Mandela, Peres is a winner of the Nobel peace prize. As defence minister in the 1970s, he was also involved in military and trade ties with South Africa’s white rulers. In 2010, he denied a newspaper report that Israel had offered to provide the apartheid state with nuclear weapons in 1975.
Netanyahu, whose government has been holding US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, was criticised in Israeli media in April for spending $127,000 fitting a bedroom into the chartered airliner that flew him the five hours to London for the funeral of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.