A day before it was to take place, the European Union said Monday that it was canceling a Europe Day diplomatic reception over National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s plans to attend the event and deliver an address.
“The EU Delegation to Israel is looking forward to celebrating Europe Day on May 9, as it does every year,” said the EU in a statement. “Regrettably, this year we have decided to cancel the diplomatic reception, as we do not want to offer a platform to someone whose views contradict the values the European Union stands for.”
The cultural event in Tel Aviv for the general public will still take place.
The decision came after EU ambassadors met Monday morning at the Delegation offices to decide on a way forward.
The decision was almost unanimous, a diplomat from an EU member state told The Times of Israel. Only Poland and Hungary, two conservative pro-Israel countries, dissented, according to the diplomat.
Ben Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, was determined to appear at the celebratory event, despite the European bloc reportedly asking that someone else represent the Israeli government instead due to his far-right views.
Ben Gvir lashed the EU diplomats for the decision shortly after it was announced.
“It is a shame that the European Union, which claims to represent the values of democracy and multiculturalism, is undiplomatically shutting mouths,” he said.
“It is an honor and a privilege for me to represent the Israeli government, the heroic IDF soldiers, and the people of Israel in every forum,” said Ben Gvir. “Friends know how to voice criticism and true friends also know how to take it.”
“The State of Israel alone will determine who its representatives are, who speaks on its behalf. The Europeans need to understand, we respect them, but we stand for our own fate,” Ben Gvir said in a second statement. “We will be the ones who manage the government of Israel. Not any other authority.”
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid accused the hard-right coalition of squandering the positive relations with the EU fostered by previous government, led by himself and by Naftali Bennett.
“Managing the foreign relations of a country like Israel is complex, and needs expertise and a smart approach,” Lapid said on Twitter. “The current government is getting us into unnecessary quarrels and creating a crisis with the European Union just so Ben Gvir can again embarrass us in front of the world with an unnecessary speech.”
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a key figure in the opposition, said, “Sending Ben Gvir to represent the State of Israel to the European Union is a diplomatic hit and extreme lack of judgment by Netanyahu.”
Many European ambassadors were worried that Ben Gvir would use the event to build legitimacy on the world stage, the Haaretz daily reported this week.
“He will arrive, make a speech in front of a polite audience that won’t boo and won’t disturb him, he will shake hands with a few people and use this to claim that the world accepts him and his racist doctrine,” one ambassador was quoted as saying.
A European official told the newspaper that so far, most countries in Europe and the EU itself have sought to work with those considered more moderate in the Israeli government and ignore the far-right elements led by Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is head of the Religious Zionism party.
“Ben Gvir is forcing the Union to end that approach and respond,” the diplomat said. “Israel is forcing the European countries to respond to a crisis that no one wants.”
On Sunday, Ben Gvir confirmed that he intended to give a speech at the annual event with European Union diplomats, despite the objections.
“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,” a 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.
Haaretz cited Israeli sources saying that due to protocol, Ben Gvir cannot be replaced as the representative unless he decides to back out, and that there was little chance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could convince him to step aside as an ongoing spat between the two means they are no longer directly in contact.
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, since Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is scheduled to be in India and so cannot attend.
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.
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.