Amid controversy, Honduran president backs out of Independence Day event

Foreign Ministry indicates decision won’t damage friendship between the two countries; invitation to Hernandez was criticized due to his country’s human rights record

President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez waves during a visit to Santiago, Chile, March 10, 2018. (Esteban Felix/AP)
President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez waves during a visit to Santiago, Chile, March 10, 2018. (Esteban Felix/AP)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Monday canceled his participation in Israel’s gala 70th Independence Day celebrations next week, following criticism — led by an opposition Knesset member and based on his country’s human rights record — of the decision to have him light a ceremonial torch.

“Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández will not attend Israel’s 70th anniversary festivities, as originally planned,” the ministry said in statement. “The Foreign Ministry regrets his not coming and welcomes the friendship between the two countries.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev announced last week that Hernandez would be the first foreign leader to take part in the annual torch-lighting ceremony, to be held in Jerusalem on April 18, alongside parades, dancing, music and fireworks.

Hernandez’s involvement in the ceremony was criticized by many, including Meretz party head Tamar Zandberg who said that the Central American nation was a corrupt human rights violator and that having him at the ceremony would dishonor Israel.

On Monday, Ynet news reported that a representative of the Honduran president contacted the Foreign Ministry to say that due to the criticism directed at Hernandez, he was reconsidering his participation in the ceremony.

Other reports, however, said that Hernandez’s concern was not the criticism directed at him, but rather the local political controversy surrounding the ceremony.

Regev ignited a spat with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein several weeks ago when she insisted that in a break with tradition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should deliver an address at the torch-lighting ceremony. Edelstein responded that in keeping with tradition, neither Netanyahu nor President Reuven Rivlin should take part in the state ceremony, which is run by the Knesset, saying that Edelstein must be the ranking official at the event to avoid it becoming political. Undermining Edelstein’s argument, however, footage uncovered last week showed that Netanyahu, in his first term as prime minister, did participate in the 1998 ceremony marking Israel’s 50th anniversary.

A rumored “compromise” — under which Netanyahu might light a torch and speak briefly at the event — was reportedly being engineered on Sunday thanks to the invitation extended to Hernandez, but the final arrangements regarding Netanyahu’s possible participation were not confirmed. The presence of a foreign head of state at the ceremony on Mount Herzl could, according to protocol rules, require Netanyahu to also be present, officials said.

On Sunday, the Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies, headed by Regev, announced the names of the other torch lighters at the 70th Independence Day ceremony, in addition to Hernandez, who would be the first foreign leader to receive the honor.

The torch lighters are generally figures who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society.

Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi perfoms at Park Hayarkon, in Tel Aviv, on July 2, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi is to light a torch. “In his unique style, Artzi expresses the experience of Israeli life in his songs, writings and radio broadcasts,” Regev said in the announcement.

Artzi said he was “very honored” to have been selected, but regretted that “my [deceased] parents and sisters will not get to share this moment with me.”

Veteran actor Leah Koenig, 89, will also light a torch. “Koenig became one of the symbols of the Habima national theater where she played many central roles,” Regev said.

General (Res.) Yeshayahu (Shaike) Gavish, the 93-year-old chairman of the Palmach Veterans Association, will also light a torch. “Gavish was among those who planned the Sinai Campaign and served as commander of the Southern Command during its glorious victories in the Six Day War,” the selection committee said.

Gold medalist in the 2012 London Paralympics Games, Noam Gershony (c), seen with President Shimon Peres (r) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony at the President’s house in Jerusalem. September 11, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Paralympic gold medalist Captain (Res.) Noam Gershony was chosen by the committee to light a torch. He was injured after the helicopter he was piloting collided with another helicopter during the Second Lebanon War, killing his copilot, and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He won gold in the 2012 London Summer Paralympics for Quad Singles and shared a bronze in Quad Doubles. “Gershony expresses the legacy of disabled and injured IDF soldiers who proudly and courageously carry the price of the state’s revival on their bodies,” the committee said.

Racheli Ganot, CEO of Rachip, a high-tech company that integrates ultra-Orthodox women into the workforce, was also chosen to light a torch.

Moroccan-born comedian, movie actor, and director Ze’ev Revach, 78, was selected to light a torch. “In his unique artistic way he created a multi-colored space in Israeli reality, using laughter and emotion,” the committee said.

Bible expert and linguist Avshalom Kor, 68, will light a torch. “He has written numerous books, hosted countless radio and television programs, quizzes and plays dedicated to Hebrew,” the committee said. “It renewed the legacy of the Hebrew language and became a symbol of the love for the precision and the connection of the language of Israeli speech to its ancient origins.”

Margalit Zinati, sole Jewish resident of the Druze village of Peki’in in the Galilee, with an 1,800-year-old limestone capital bearing two Hebrew inscriptions found there in February 2017. (Ritvo courtesy of Beit Zinati)

Margalit Zinati, the 86-year-old sole Jewish resident of the Druze village of Peki’in in the Galilee, will light a torch. Her family has lived for centuries in Peki’in, and she takes care of the town’s synagogue, said to contain stones from the Second Temple. “Throughout her life she worked to preserve the ancient synagogue in Peki’in, and convey the history of Peki’in and her family’s experiences to future generations,” the committee said.

Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, is to light a torch. A resident of the northern village of Julis, his family have been leading the local Druze community since 1753. He has led his community, “in a time of many challenges, while constantly attempting to preserve its unique heritage as it adapts to changing times,” the committee said. “Sheikh Tarif is a central personality in the interfaith dialogue in Israel and works tirelessly to build a bridge of tolerance and understanding among members of different religions and cultures.”

Spiritual leader of the Druze Community in Israel Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, October 20, 2013. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/FLASH90)

Marcelle Machluf, an award-winning biotechnologist at Haifa’s Technion University, was selected to light a torch. “Her innovative research has led to many breakthroughs which enabled more precise and targeted treatment of cancer without harming healthy cells,” the committee said.

Mathematician Aviezri Fraenkel, 88, who in 2007 was awarded an Israel Prize for his work on combinatorial game theory, will light a torch. In 2014 one of his grandsons, Yaacov Naftali Fraenkel, was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists.

Hearing-impaired 15-year-old schoolgirl May Korman, who patented an idea to prevent children being forgotten in cars, will also light a torch.

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