Israel officially mum after European Union cancels event to avoid Ben Gvir speech

Diplomatic officials said angry that cabinet secretary assigned firebrand lawmaker to sensitive Europe Day reception; EU diplomats say Hungary, Poland blocked harsher response

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 Israeli government has so far remained silent over the European decision on Monday to cancel a scheduled Europe Day reception in Tel Aviv in order to prevent far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir from speaking there.

Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Prime Minister’s Office had issued any statements on the incident as of Tuesday morning.

The Haaretz daily quoted a senior Israeli official as saying the incident was a “stupid crisis” that could have easily been prevented, lambasting the decision made by the cabinet secretary to list Ben Gvir as the official government representative.

Israeli officials had indicated in recent days that due to protocol, Ben Gvir couldn’t be replaced unless he opted to back out, and there was little chance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could convince him to step aside amid an ongoing spat between the two.

The official who spoke to Haaretz suggested that Israel would make no comment on the cancellation as it was seeking to quickly put the incident in its rearview mirror: “No minister in the government is going to cancel meetings or visits in Europe because the Europeans don’t want to meet Ben Gvir. This is the clearest sign that we want to put this whole thing behind us.”

On Monday the European Union said it was canceling the Europe Day diplomatic reception over Ben Gvir’s plans to attend 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.”

Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs reportedly selected Ben Gvir to attend the Europe Day event two weeks ago, since Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was scheduled to be in India and could not attend.

According to Channel 12 news, the Foreign Ministry was fuming at the cabinet secretary’s decision to assign Ben Gvir to the event without taking into consideration the diplomatic consequences. The news network reported that diplomatic officials were expected to have further input on such decisions moving forward, whereas in the past such assignments were largely made based on technical considerations.

The European Union flag is at half staff as a double rainbow forms over the European Council building in Brussels, September 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

The decision to cancel the reception came after EU ambassadors met Monday morning to decide on a way forward once Ben Gvir made clear he had no intention of backing out of the event or tempering his planned speech.

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.

According to those present at the meeting, some of the EU ambassadors sought to issue a much harsher statement but were ultimately blocked from doing so. The original motion put forward at the meeting would have seen all the ambassadors issue a joint statement expressing disappointment over Israel’s decision to send the far-right national security minister.

Hungary and Poland blocked that statement.

New EU Ambassador to Israel Dimiter Tzantchev presents his credentials to President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem on December 6, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The “usual suspects’’ at the meeting were spoiling for a confrontation with Israel, said one of the diplomats present. Some countries saw sending Ben Gvir to the event as an intentional snub of Europe by Israel.

EU envoy to Israel Dimiter Tzantchev said initially that a statement would come from Brussels, but in the end decided to issue a statement himself as host, according to those present.

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. “We will be the ones who manage the government of Israel. Not any other authority.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Border Police ceremony in Latrun on May 2, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the hard-right coalition of squandering the positive relations with the EU fostered by the 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 wrote 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.”

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.

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.

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