MK Yitzhak Herzog
MK Yitzhak Herzog Flash 90

Opposition Chairman and Labor leader, MK Yitzhak Herzog, accused Prime Binyamin Minister Netanyahu of "insensitivity or plain stupidity" over his decision not to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral.

In a Facebook post, Herzog said that he has spoken with the heads of the Jewish community in South Africa and that they are incensed by Netanyahu's behavior. "We learned this week that the prime minister does not necessarily understand when it is proper to save money and when it is not," he explained.

"I wonder if his behavior and that of his bureau regarding Nelson Mandela's funeral stems from insensitivity or plain stupidity. The heads of the Jewish community in South Africa are furious over the prime minister's behavior, his zigzagging and the declaration that he will not come because of the financial cost."

"This is interpreted as a dismissive attitude toward South Africa," Herzog accused. "On top of all that, there is a lack of diplomatic common sense here; the prime minister would have been able to meet the heads of the world's most important states and instead he chose to intensify the Israeli feeling of isolation."

After the president and prime minister announced that they could not attend the funeral, Knesset Speaker MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud-Beytenu) took off for South Africa instead, to represent the Jewish state at the head of a five-MK delegation.

The reasons cited for Netanyahu's decision not to attend the funeral were the high costs involved as well as the complex security considerations. President Peres suffered from influenza recently and his health was cited as the reason for not attending.

Netanyahu has come under fire from the Israeli press in recent weeks for allegedly spending too much on household expenditures as well as on travel. 

South African Jews have found themselves in a somewhat uncomfortable place regarding the legacy of the country's late president, with many admiring him for leading the fight against apartheid but less enamored by his close relationship with anti-Israel figures such as Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi.

A report in Haaretz quoted Dorron Kline, deputy director of Telfed, the South African Zionist federation in Israel, as saying that: "When Nelson Mandela was in power, South Africa was far more balanced in its approach to Israel. I think it was his personality and his outlook that kept things balanced. We will feel his loss particularly in that sphere."

South Africa is currently a hotbed of anti-Israel activity, with hostility to the Jewish state permeating through to senior government officials.

The South African BDLive website noted that the country's Cabinet announced in November that it does not have a ban on government officials travelling to Israel, a week after International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said the country’s ministers were not going to Israel as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians.

In November, Nkoana-Mashabane publicly criticized Israel’s "illegal occupation" of "Palestine," saying: "That arrangement there in Palestine [sic] keeps us awake ... the last time I looked at the map of Palestine, I could not go to sleep. The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle.

"(Government) ministers of South Africa do not visit Israel currently ... our Palestinian friends have asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the (Israeli) regime. We have agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better," she said.

This prompted a furious reaction from Israel. Avigdor Liberman, then-Chairman of the Knesset's Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense and currently the Foreign Minister, was quoted as saying: "The government of South Africa is creating an atmosphere of anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Semitism that will make a pogrom against Jews in the country just a matter of time."

He called on all Jews who live in South Africa "to immigrate to Israel immediately, without delay, before it’s too late".

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation issued a statement in November expressing outrage at Nkonana-Mashabane’s remarks, but said Lieberman’s comments were "alarmist and inflammatory."