CAN A country boycott itself? That may sound like a silly question. It is not.
At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the "Giant of History" as Barack Obama called him, Israel was not represented by any of its leaders.
The only dignitary who agreed to go was the speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, a nice person, an immigrant from the Soviet Union and a settler, who is so anonymous that most Israelis would not recognize him. ("His own father would have trouble recognizing him in the street," somebody joked.)
Why? The President of the State, Shimon Peres, caught a malady that prevented him from going, but which did not prevent him from making a speech and receiving visitors on the same day. Well, there are all kinds of mysterious microbes.
The Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had an even stranger reason. The journey, he claimed, was too expensive, what with all the accompanying security people and so on.
Not so long ago, Netanyahu caused a scandal when it transpired that for his journey to Margaret Thatcher's funeral, a five-hour flight, he had a special double bed installed in the El Al plane at great expense. He and his much maligned wife, Sara'le, did not want to provoke another scandal so soon. Who's Mandela, after all?
ALTOGETHER IT was an undignified show of personal cowardice by both Peres and Netanyahu.
What were they afraid of?
Well, they could have been booed. Recently, many details of the Israeli-South African relationship have come to light. Apartheid South Africa, which was boycotted by the entire world, was the main customer of the Israeli military industry. It was a perfect match: Israel had a lot of weapon systems but no money to produce them, South Africa had lots of money but no one who would supply it with weapons.
So Israel sold Mandela's jailers everything it could, from combat aircraft to military electronics, and shared with it its nuclear knowledge. Peres himself was deeply involved.
The relationship was not merely commercial. Israeli officers and officials met with their South African counterparts, visits were exchanged, personal friendship fostered. While Israel never endorsed apartheid, our government certainly did not reject it.
Still, our leaders should have been there, together with the leaders of the whole world. Mandela was the Great Forgiver, and he forgave Israel, too. When the master of ceremonies in the stadium mistakenly announced that Peres and Netanyahu had arrived, just a few boos were heard. Far less than the boos for the current South African president.
In Israel, only one voice was openly raised against Mandela. Shlomo Avineri, a respected professor and former Director General of the Foreign Office, criticized him for having a "blind spot" -- for taking the Palestinian side against Israel. He also mentioned that another moral authority, Mahatma Gandhi, had the same "blind spot."
Strange. Two moral giants and the same blind spot? How could that be, one wonders.
THE BOYCOTT movement against Israel is slowly gaining ground. It takes three main forms (and several in between).
The most focused form is the boycott of the products of the settlements, which was started by Gush Shalom 15 years ago. It is active now in many countries.
A more stringent form is the boycott of all institutes and corporations that are dealing with the settlements. This is now the official policy of the European Union. Just this week, Holland broke off relations with the monopolistic Israeli Water Corporation, Mekorot, which plays a part in the policy that deprives Palestinians of essential water supplies and transfers them to the settlements.