The problem is not so much that the prime minister had first informed the South African government that he would, in fact, attend the ceremony, alongside Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, French President Francois Hollande, and scores of other world dignitaries, among them Iranian President Hassan Rohani, in what is expected to be a world gathering unprecedented in scope.
Nor is the basic problem the fact that the decision was made so abruptly and with such lack of consultation, that the office of President Shimon Peres was thrown for a loop, and it was unclear if arrangements could be made to have Peres represent Israel in Netanyahu's stead.
The problem is the reason Netanyahu chose to give: Money. The trip would cost too much. The problem, then, is the message Netanyahu has chosen to send:
My Israel, which so craves and demands legitimacy and recognition as a full partner in the community of nations, does not consider a man like Nelson Mandela, or a nation like South Africa, or the sentiment of an entire world, worth the price of a plane flight.
In sending this message, Benjamin Netanyahu has treated the passing of Nelson Mandela as he does every challenge in statecraft: He has addressed one problem by creating another.
His message is clear: My Israel, which spends untold tens of millions on such matters as bolstering and protecting settlement construction during peace negotiations with the Palestinians, or erecting detention facilities for African asylum seekers rather than formulating coherent and just refugee policies, has nothing left over for this man Mandela.
But that's only the beginning. With a wink and a nod to the settler right, the academic rabid right, and the KKK-esque far right, Netanyahu is sending an even stronger message:
This is where I stand on this Palestinian-lover, Mandela. And this is where I stand on his Palestinian-lover heirs.
At home, the decision has been interpreted as Netanyahu's response to recent reports of profligate household spending.
Bottom line, Netanyahu seems to be suggesting: I have learned my lesson from having lavish bedrooms installed in airliners for relatively short trips, and for overspending taxpayers' money on flowers and candles and pool water for my three homes.
I will economize. No more empty frills. Like the Mandela funeral.
Worst of all, perhaps, and certainly setting a new standard in irony, Netanyahu's skipping the Mandela commemorations will allow him to oversee an extraordinary exercise in ramming through a Knesset bill to allow authorities to jail African asylum seekers for up to a year without trial, and to keep them from finding gainful employment in Israel.
Just last month, the cabinet approved a budget allocation of 440 million shekels ($126 million) to fund the provisions of the as-yet-unpassed and High Court-vulnerable bill – more than 60 times what it would have cost for Netanyahu to attend the funeral.
Never has Netanyahu sent a message quite this infuriating, with so much apparent success.
He is betting, apparently, that the moderate majority has expectations so low, its resources of outrage so overtaxed and depleted, its capacity for response so beaten flat, that it will do little more than shrug and trudge on. And this bet may well be the smart money.
What we are stuck with, in the end, is the message that Netanyahu is sending to the world. The world that Netanyahu's Israel is determined not to be a part of.
"The whole world is coming to South Africa," foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said at the weekend.
The world, yes. Israel, maybe not.