As Knesset speaker boycotts Independence Day show, Rivlin has no plans to attend

As Knesset speaker boycotts Independence Day show, Rivlin has no plans to attend

Amid escalating feud over who gets to speak at torch-lighting event for Israel’s 70th birthday, culture minister insists she makes the decisions

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a reception for diplomats in Israel marking the country's 69th Independence Day, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a reception for diplomats in Israel marking the country's 69th Independence Day, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

A feud between the Knesset speaker and the prime minister over who gets to make a speech at Israel’s 70th Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony intensified Sunday, with Culture Minister Miri Regev insisting she calls the shots and trying to drag President Reuven Rivlin into the expanding fracas.

At the heart of the debate with Regev is Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is objecting to a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the ceremony, saying that by tradition he must be the senior official at the event.

But Regev said Sunday it has nothing to do with Edelstein and she will make the decisions.

“The ceremony torch-lighting ceremony has always been a ceremony of the government, never a ceremony of the Knesset,” Regev said, attacking Edelstein who had called on parliamentarians and staff to boycott the event, should the prime minister insist on attending.

“I must say that I am disappointed by the behavior of the Knesset speaker and his conduct harms the Knesset and the government,” Regev said at a press conference in Tel Aviv.

“I am responsible for the ceremony,” she insisted. “The torch-lighting needs only my approval. No one else has a say in this ceremony.”

She insisted that the event did not belong to Edelstein.

Culture Minister Miri Regev holds a press conference regarding the Independence Day state ceremony at the Culture Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 1, 2018. (Flash90)

“This is not an event of the Knesset speaker, nor of the prime minister, nor of the president,” she said. “Therefore I said that I would not have two major events, but one big event with the participation of the president, the speaker, the prime minister and the most senior representative of another country who attends.”

But Rivlin appeared to side with tradition, with sources close to the president reportedly saying he will stay away.

As in all previous years, Rivlin does not intend to speak at the ceremony or even attend, and has not even received an invitation, the Ynet news site quoted the sources as saying.

In a recent letter sent to lawmakers and staff, Edelstein stated that the ceremony is meant to be strictly apolitical.

“In the event the Knesset is not the sole representative of Israel [at the event], as it is every year, unfortunately, the Knesset will not take part,” he wrote.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) with Minister of Culture Miri Regev (L) during a ceremony on April 26, 2017, at the Knesset, honoring the torch-lighters in the 69th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At a conference organized by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Sunday, Edelstein said that “someone” had given the prime minister bad advice and convinced him to attend the ceremony. The remark was widely understood as a reference to Regev, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, who fired back, saying that Edelstein had no say in the matter.

“The government decided to honor the Knesset speaker with a speech during the ceremony, but that does not make the ceremony his,” Regev insisted. “The government has the right to make a decision that once every decade, after 70 years of the State of Israel, both the president and the prime minister will appear at the ceremony together.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, right, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, light the ceremonial torch during the official state ceremony of Israel’s 69th Independence Day at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, May 1, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett suggested a compromise solution, whereby a one-time exception would be made and the prime minister would be the keynote speaker at the Israel Prize ceremony, instead of at the torch-lighting ceremony.

Typically, the prime minister is in attendance when the country’s most prestigious awards are handed out, but does not speak in an effort to preserve the non-political status of the event.

Bennett’s proposal would see him address the ceremony as traditionally done, but only after Netanyahu opened the proceedings.

“I call upon you to accept this proposal out of a desire to allow the celebrations to take place in the spirit of unity and statehood, so that we… will not cloud the holiday atmosphere,” the education minister wrote.

On Thursday evening, Hadashot TV news reported that Edelstein had told confidants that Netanyahu’s presence at the ceremony was not what bothered him, but rather that of the culture minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2018. ( Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

“There is no limit to her desire to pit lawmakers against each other,” Edelstein was quoted as having said about Regev.

“I have no problem with the prime minister. We straightened things out two weeks ago. But she just cannot understand that the ceremony is not some side gig,” he added.

The lighting of 12 torches by people who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society is a highlight of the annual ceremony, held at nightfall on the eve of Independence Day, alongside parades, dancing, music, and fireworks.

Netanyahu’s participation is seen as part of a drive to revamp the ceremony, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, to give it an added boost on Israel’s 70th birthday. The prime minister last year sent personal letters to heads of state around the world inviting them to the event. Previous ceremonies were generally attended by foreign envoys or military attaches.

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