PM, Gallant tell ministers and MKs to leave politics, arguments out of Memorial Day

In letter, defense minister says lawmakers must refrain from divisive comments on ‘one of the most sensitive and sacred’ days of the year, as authorities seek to tamp down tensions

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday sent a letter instructing ministers and members of Knesset to avoid making political statements during next week’s Memorial Day, amid widespread concern the fraught political atmosphere could mar the day of mourning for fallen soldiers and terror victims, and further widen social schisms in Israeli society.

Gallant said the day is “one of the most sensitive and sacred” of the year, and “now more than ever,” politicians must send a message of unity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also called on public officials to put all arguments aside ahead of Memorial Day and Independence Day.

“In the past few months, an important debate has been raging among us over our democracy, but during these days, I ask all elected officials — from the right and left — to put the argument aside, to leave it outside of the cemeteries,” Netanyahu said in a video statement. “To allow the bereaved families, and all of us, to mourn in silence the memory of our loved ones.”

The prime minister said that “unity” is the need of the hour, and the bereaved families “deserve to experience these days with the entire nation of Israel standing united, behind our heroes, without any arguments.”

Channel 12 reported that in a meeting with ministers, Netanyahu stressed that cabinet members must show “restraint” in the face of potential protests at cemeteries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool/Flash90)

In his letter, Gallant noted the intense public debate over the presence of politicians at Memorial Day ceremonies, as the country remains sharply divided over the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

Gallant said he believes lawmakers should attend such ceremonies, but “must not include political comments in the ‘holy of holies,’ the military cemeteries.”

Instead, they should convey messages of Zionism, cooperation and unity, and honor bereaved families, he said.

Gallant also praised an initiative by opposition MK Chili Tropper, who has signed 100 MKs onto a commitment not to make political statements on the day.

Security officials expect protest chants against some ministers and Knesset members during Memorial Day proceedings, and extra security will be provided to certain ministers who are expected to draw a reaction, Ynet reported.

Some of the ministers who will receive extra security are National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

Guards will be deployed to some cemeteries and will summon police to eject anyone who becomes disorderly, even if the person is a bereaved family member.

A security official told Ynet, “There’s no doubt that there will be [protest] chants. The politicians know how to handle them, and they’ll be silenced quickly.”

The preparations came as tensions surrounding Memorial Day activities have risen, largely surrounding the government’s controversial judicial shakeup plans that have deeply divided Israeli society.

Thousands of parents of fallen soldiers have demanded that politicians not attend or speak at Memorial Day ceremonies at military cemeteries next Tuesday, the chairman of the Yad Labanim commemoration organization Eli Ben-Shem has said.

A woman sits next to a grave of a fallen soldier in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day next week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben-Shem warned that verbal and even physical confrontations could break out at military cemeteries if government ministers and MKs — particularly those who did not serve in the IDF — attend Memorial Day events at the sensitive sites.

“I very much hope that they [the government] understand that these places are dynamite,” said Ben Shem on Kan Radio, in reference to military ceremonies on Memorial Day.

Referencing legislation recently proposed by the government that would grant ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students blanket exemptions from IDF service at a younger age than the current law, Ben-Shem said that having politicians who did not perform military service participate in Memorial Day services would be akin to “lighting a bonfire in a cemetery.”

Ben-Shem and others delivered the same message to Gallant in a meeting on Tuesday.

“They need to exercise common sense, otherwise there will be a catastrophe. [The military] cemeteries are the holy of holies of the State of Israel. If we see violence and shouting over the graves of our children, I would want to die,” said the Yad Labanim chairman, who is himself a bereaved father.

Ben-Shem said there were seven ceremonies where politicians who did not perform IDF service are scheduled to participate, including an event in Beersheba where Ben Gvir, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party, is expected to speak.

Ben Gvir did not perform military service because the IDF declined to draft him due to his involvement in ultra-nationalist agitation as a youth before reaching the age of enlistment.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir takes part in a march to the Evyatar outpost, near the West Bank city of Nablus, during the Passover holiday, on April 10, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The far-right Smotrich will attend a ceremony in Lod, according to a Thursday statement from the Cabinet Secretary. In addition to being finance minister, Smotrich is a minister in the Defense Ministry and performed minimal military service.

Gallant will attend a ceremony at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery near Tel Aviv and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Levin, who put together the overhaul legislation, will attend a ceremony in Ofakim.

Last week, Ben-Shem stated that some 8,000 parents had contacted his organization and requested that politicians not attend the services. He noted that there was particularly strident opposition to Ben Gvir’s participation in the Beersheba ceremony.

Also on Wednesday, opposition leader and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid announced he would not attend the traditional torch-lighting ceremony which ends Memorial Day and opens Independence Day, due to societal divisions he said the government has created due to its radical judicial overhaul program.

Lapid’s decision comes following reports on Tuesday that Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for the ceremony, plans to cut the live broadcast of the event and switch to a rehearsal recording should the actual torch-lighting ceremony be interrupted by anti-government protestors.

Police are also set to bolster forces to secure Memorial Day events, but have been instructed to keep a “low profile” and try to avoid conflicts with bereaved families, Channel 12 reported.

Organizers of the mass protests that have rocked Israel for the past several months have said they have no intention of staging protests at memorial ceremonies.

A group representing reservist soldiers protesting against the government’s judicial overhaul on Thursday called on its activists not to demonstrate against the reforms during Memorial Day.

“On the coming Memorial Day, we will not protest because our hearts will be with our brothers and sisters in arms who fell in battle, we will bow our heads for them, we will cry and hug the families,” the Brothers in Arms group said in a statement on social media.

“We call on all the brothers and sisters in arms to leave their protest shirts at home and not to come to the cemeteries with them,” the group added.

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