Ben Gvir determined to speak at annual EU bash, despite consternation from envoys

National security minister says he’ll attend Europe Day event; Israeli diplomat warns some may bow out to avoid meeting him; unnamed official says little hope PM can intervene

National Security Minsiter, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, Itamar Ben Gvir gives a press statement during a party meeting in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, May 3, 2023. (Flash90)
National Security Minsiter, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, Itamar Ben Gvir gives a press statement during a party meeting in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, May 3, 2023. (Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir confirmed Sunday that he intends to give a speech at an annual meeting with European Union diplomats this week, despite the bloc reportedly asking that someone else represent the Israeli government instead.

In a statement from his office, Ben Gvir confirmed that he will be at the Europe Day celebratory event on Tuesday.

“The minister believes that even if the representatives of the Union ‘do not support his views’… they understand very well that Israel is a democracy and in a democracy it is allowed to hear different opinions,” the statement said on behalf of the far-right lawmaker.

“Among other things, the minister will speak about the importance of the joint war on terrorism, will congratulate the European countries, will call for the strengthening of cooperation and will emphasize the need to unite around the fight against jihad and terrorists, and at the same time will point out that it is appropriate that the countries not finance projects against IDF soldiers and Israeli residents,” the statement read.

An unnamed Israeli diplomat told the Haaretz newspaper that some European envoys may boycott the Israel event if Ben Gvir, head of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, attends.

However, sources told the newspaper that due to protocol, Ben Gvir cannot be replaced unless he decides to back out, and there is little chance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can convince him to step aside as an ongoing spat between the two means they are no longer directly in contact.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the government is sworn in at the Knesset, December 29, 2022 (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP)

Ben Gvir has been the focus of intense criticism at home and abroad over provocative actions and statements against Palestinians, Arab Israelis, left-wingers and the international community.

The Government Secretariat reportedly selected Ben Gvir to attend the Europe Day event two weeks ago as Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is scheduled to be in India and so cannot attend.

A European official told Haaretz that the EU delegation and representatives of some countries have asked that a different Israeli official be sent instead.

However, a government source explained to the newspaper that employees in the Government Secretariat are not authorized to instruct ministers to not attend events due to their political views.

“The ball, at the moment, is in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry,” said the official who was not named in the report.

A European source said of Ben Gvir that “many of his previous declarations and his positions contradict the values of the Union.”

An unidentified Israeli diplomat advised that “the Israeli side comes to its senses so as not to embarrass the ambassadors of the [European] Union.”

The diplomat added that if Ben Gvir insists on going, “I will not be surprised if there are diplomats who would prefer to avoid the Israeli minister or not come to the event.”

While Netanyahu could pressure Ben Gvir to pull out, a source familiar with the situation said that the relationship between the two men has deteriorated to the point where there is no longer any dialogue between them.

“There is at the moment a disconnect between the prime minister and Ben Gvir, separate from this matter, meaning that reaching a solution is complicated,” the unnamed Israeli official told Haaretz.

Ben Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit, has threatened to quit the coalition as a row over its influence on policy intensified. The dispute erupted last week when Ben Gvir clashed with Netanyahu over his exclusion from security deliberations on fighting between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups.

Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment, Haaretz said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Minhelet Har Habayit)

Europe Day is a celebration of peace and unity in Europe on the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration in 1950, which proposed pooling French and West German coal and steel production. The cooperative body between West Germany and France would eventually grow and expand to become the European Union.

An EU official told the Kan public broadcaster last week that the union has requested that a more respectful choice of representative be made.

“We don’t support the political views of Minister Ben Gvir, or his party. For example, many of his past statements and opinions contradict the views the European Union represents,” the official said.

An ambassador to Israel from an unnamed EU state told Haaretz last week he preferred not to meet or work with Ben Gvir or Religious Zionism chair Bezalel Smotrich due to their views.

Other foreign administrations have also attempted to tiptoe around the more hardline members of Netanyahu’s government, while still working with relative moderates.

The source told Haaretz that since the establishment of Netanyahu’s government, the EU has hesitated to send it invitations to events, since they are customarily open to all lawmakers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir, a disciple of anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane, is seen as the most extreme member of Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition. A longtime fixture on the far-right fringes of society who was convicted on terror offenses, he has ridden a wave of right-wing discontent into power over the last several years.

Going into last year’s elections, Ben Gvir campaigned on hardline policies such as enacting the death penalty for terrorists, expelling “disloyal” Arab Israeli citizens, and changing the rules of engagement for Israeli security forces to allow them to more easily shoot-to-kill Palestinian suspects.

Last month, when Israel marked its soldiers’ memorial day, some bereaved families asked that government ministers not attended official ceremonies. Though some pulled out, Ben Gvir — who was not permitted to serve in the military due to his extremist views — insisted on going ahead with a speech at a Beersheba event, despite calls that he stay away.

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