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Likud MKs argue over Netanyahu participation in Independence Day ceremony

Clashing with culture minister, Knesset speaker declares he will boycott torch-lighting event if PM breaks with tradition and attends, speaks

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) with Minister of Culture Miri Regev (L) during a ceremony at the Knesset to honor the torch-lighters for the 69th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl, on April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) with Minister of Culture Miri Regev (L) during a ceremony at the Knesset to honor the torch-lighters for the 69th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl, on April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two senior members of the ruling Likud party locked horns on Tuesday evening over the possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend and address the annual torch-lighting ceremony next month marking the start of Independence Day.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has been unhappy with Netanyahu’s expected decision to participate, which breaks with a tradition according to which the Knesset speaker is the most senior official at the event. This week he declared that such a scenario would prompt him and the Knesset guard to boycott the ceremony.

At a conference organized by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Sunday, Edelstein said that “someone” had been giving the prime minister bad advice and convinced him to attend the ceremony. The remark was widely understood as a reference to Culture Minister Miri Regev, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, who fired back two days later.

“It is very regrettable that the Knesset speaker is turning the national ceremony into a personal, petty squabble,” Regev said. “Mount Herzl isn’t his private estate, and with all due respect it is not a personal ceremony and personal issues should be removed from public discourse. The Knesset guard is also not Edelstein’s private royal guard.

“The decision on whether to come to the ceremony lies exclusively with the prime minister,” she continued. “As was decided by the ministerial committee for the 70th anniversary celebrations, it would be appropriate for the president, prime minister and an international head of state to speak at the ceremony. It would honor the citizens and even the Knesset and its chief.”

The lighting of 12 torches by people who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society is a highlight of the annual ceremony, held at nightfall on the eve of Independence Day, alongside parades, dancing, music, and fireworks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with the Independence Day Ceremony Torch Lighters, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on April 26, 2017. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Netanyahu’s participation is seen as part of a drive to revamp the ceremony, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, to give it an added boost on Israel’s 70th birthday. The prime minister last year sent personal letters to heads of state around the world inviting them to the event. Previous ceremonies were generally attended by foreign envoys or military attaches.

Edelstein accused Regev of trying to “harm” the ceremony.

“The torch-lighting ceremony belongs to all citizens of the State of Israel and therefore the Knesset, which represents all parts of Israeli society, is the only authority that can express that,” he said in a statement. “That has been the custom since the state was established.

“It is regrettable that the culture minister is trying to harm for the first time a ceremony that is the purest and most beautiful expression of the Israeli people and of Israeliness,” he added. “Whoever harms the ceremony will be sabotaging one of the most beautiful and moving values we have.”

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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