The US sent its president and three former presidents to Tuesday’s memorial
service for anti-apartheid hero and former South African president Nelson
Mandela. The UK and France sent its prime ministers, as did another nearly 90
countries. Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama were set to attend. Israel, however,
came close to sending no one, in a near diplomatic fiasco that started Sunday
and developed throughout Monday.
In the end, Knesset Speaker Yuli
Edelstein flew Monday night to the memorial service, along with the first female
Ethiopian MK Pnina Tamnu-Shata (Yesh Atid), as well as MKs Dov Lipman (Yesh
Atid), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), Gila Gamliel (Likud Beytenu) and Hilik Bar
Edelstein, a former prisoner of Zion in the USSR, said he’s
“happy that in the end Israel has representation at this important event. As a
former prisoner of conscience, I had the privilege of meeting Mandela as a
minister in 1996, and we shared experiences from prison and the fight for our
rights. This is a sort of closure for me.”
Before leaving for South Africa, Edelstein said that Mandela was a freedom fighter but that "more than that he was a man that knew that you do not correct an injustice with another injustice and violence with more violence.
He added that the State of Israel will remember Mandela as a man who "abandoned the path of violence in his just struggle for equality between black and white people."
"I hope that the leaders in our region will abandon terror like Mandela and will choose dialogue as a way to live in peace with Israel," the Speaker of the Knesset added.
The saga began when Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was originally scheduled to attend, decided
against it, with his office citing a price tag of millions of shekels for the
trip due to security costs. Not only would Netanyahu and his guards require
their own plane, another heavy-duty aircraft would have to carry armored cars
for him, because the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) could not go to South
Africa in advance and make security arrangements.
Netanyahu declined to
go to the service a week after coming under fire for spending thousands on
scented candles and wine.
The next option, President Shimon Peres, did
not work out either. Peres had a bad cold, his office explained. Nonetheless,
Peres held a press conference with the president of Guatemala Monday, not as
strenuous an undertaking for a 90-year-old as a 10-hour flight.
addition, Peres was instrumental in Israel’s relations with the apartheid
regime, and there are people in South Africa who did not forgive him or Israel,
even though he had close ties with Mandela in more recent years.
Bet was concerned about Netanyahu or Peres visiting South Africa, because of
overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian sentiment in the country.
Next in line to
visit was Edelstein, who put together a group of MKs to join
However, the final decision was delayed for hours. First, because of
difficulties finding a free plane. Then, it was unclear that an Israeli plane
would be able to land, due to high air traffic.
Eventually, three hours
before the Knesset delegation was supposed to fly, Edelstein closed the deal,
even reducing the price of renting a small plane from NIS 2 million to NIS
350,000. The plane will have to stop on the way to refuel, possibly in
“I’m proud and excited to take part in this historic event,”
Tamnu-Shata said. “As someone born in Africa, I feel a great privilege in
representing the State of Israel in the emotional funeral for a black hero who
made history with his two hands and changed not only South Africa but the whole
world in his fight against racism and discrimination.”
of the Knesset’s delegation to the South African parliament, said “Nelson
Mandela reminded us that one person can change the world.
He showed that
with persistence, patience, and passion, every one of us has the ability to make
a mark and leave the world a better place... It is an honor for me to be
traveling to South Africa to join Southern Africans in mourning the death of
this great leader and in representing Israel in paying tribute to
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.