Envoys worried Ben Gvir will use event to build legitimacy

EU said to notify Israel it may cancel speeches at event Ben Gvir planning to attend

Envoys to meet, decide on response to ‘provocation’ of far-right minister’s appearance at bash; diplomat: ‘Israel forcing European countries to respond to a crisis no one wants’

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

The European Union has notified Israeli officials that it is considering canceling speeches at an upcoming celebration because National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir plans to attend the event and deliver an address, Channel 13 reported Sunday.

A final decision on the matter will be made at a special meeting of EU envoys on the matter to be held Monday.

Ben Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, has remained determined to appear at the Europe Day celebratory event on Tuesday, despite the European bloc reportedly asking that someone else represent the Israeli government instead due to his far-right views.

European diplomats told the Haaretz newspaper in a report published Sunday that the EU envoy meeting was “extraordinary” and aimed at finding a joint policy on responding to Ben Gvir’s planned participation in the event.

An unnamed diplomat said there were a number of responses under consideration, ranging from boycotting the entire event to ignoring Ben Gvir and his speech.

“All options are on the table,” the diplomat said. “The worry is that each country will do a different thing, so there is an attempt to decide together how to respond to this provocation.”

The European Union flag flies outside of EU headquarters in Brussels, file photo (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Many European ambassadors are worried that Ben Gvir will use the event to build legitimacy on the world stage, according to the report.

“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 told Haaretz.

At least two of the ambassadors who will participate in the meeting intend to suggest lowering the level of representation at the Europe Day event to deputy envoys in order to send a clear message of rejection to Ben Gvir, according to the report.

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 intends to give a speech at an annual event with European Union diplomats.

“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 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 in an earlier report that the EU delegation and representatives of some countries 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.

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.

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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