Meretz head calls to uninvite Honduras president from Independence Day ceremony

Tamar Zandberg says Honduras is a serial human rights violator and having Juan Orlando Hernandez light a torch at ceremony would dishonor Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The head of the left wing Meretz party called on Saturday for Israel to rescind an invitation to the president of Honduras to light a torch at the country’s 70th anniversary of independence, saying that the Central American nation was a corrupt, human rights violator and that having him at the ceremony would dishonor the country.

Tamar Zandberg sent her letter to Culture Minister Miri Regev, after Regev announced that Juan Orlando Hernandez will be the first foreign state leader to be granted that honor.

The decision to have Hernandez light a torch was largely seen as an exercise to resolve a dispute over the attendance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the annual eve of Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl despite it being a breach of protocol. The presence of a foreign head of state would, according to protocol rules, require Netanyahu to also participate in the official state ceremony, Hebrew-language media reported.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg speaks to supporters after being elected as the new party head, March 22, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“Honduras is one of the most corrupt and dangerous countries in the world for its citizens,” Zandberg wrote.  “According to reports, the civil police, the military police and the Honduran army were involved in recent years in series human rights violations, harassment, torture, and extrajudicial killings” of anybody who opposed the regime, she wrote, singling out journalists, opposition figures, environmentalists, land rights activists and human rights activists.

“I believe it is correct to ask you to cancel this decision to have the president participate in the torch ceremony,” Zandberg wrote.

“The phrase ‘for the honor of the state of Israel’ said by those who light the torches, which is uttered in order to praise all that is good and beautiful in the state of Israel, will pale in the face of this unwanted guest and the circumstances of his invitation,” she wrote.

Regev on Saturday night rejected Zandberg’s criticism, saying her claims were “baseless slander.”

Hernandez, who has led a pro-Israel government since first elected in 2014, has confirmed his attendance at the April 18 event.

That could resolve an ongoing feud between Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has been vehemently opposed to the premier’s intention to break from decades of tradition according to which the Knesset speaker is the most senior official at the event. Edelstein has threatened to boycott the event if Netanyahu attends, and has been repeatedly slammed by Regev for his stance.

Netanyahu is said to have decided to attend the event, but not yet to have decided whether to speak.

A former head of the Shin Bet internal security service on Friday called on the public to switch TV channels or turn off the box if  Netanyahu speaks at the ceremony.

In a specially opened WhatsApp group, Carmi Gillon wrote, “The torch-lighting ceremony has the biggest ratings of the year and is broadcast on the three public networks.

Former Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)

“All viewers wishing to express their protest at the turning of the country’s most official state event to mark 70 years of independence into Netanyahu’s political event should turn off the TV or switch channels during his speech.

“It’s a protest that can be measured and for which data can be gathered almost in real time. If several hundred thousand people do this, it could have an impressive public effect.”

Hernandez began his diplomatic career in 1992 in an Israeli Foreign Ministry Mashav (Agency for International Development Cooperation) course. Regev said that Hernandez will stand alongside a representative from Mashav, which is being honored this year, when the representative lights the torch.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, right, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, light the ceremonial torch during the official state ceremony of Israel’s 69th Independence Day at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, May 1, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Mashav has trained almost 300,000 people from some 140 countries in its diplomatic and aid-related education programs in various fields such as agriculture and medicine.

“Welcome, President of Honduras,” Regev said in a statement. “I am happy and proud that the Honduran president, who is an alumnus of Mashav, will attend the ceremony and accompany the torch-lighter from the Foreign Ministry.”

In February, Honduras was one of only eight countries that opposed a UN General Assembly resolution condemning US President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, along with Guatemala, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, heaped praise on Honduras for its UN vote during a visit this month, saying it showed the two countries’ bonds were evident.

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)

“That was not an easy decision for any country to have to vote on, but the people of Honduras stood with us in being able to make that decision for ourselves and decide where we want our embassy and to know that is our right,” Haley said in a joint news conference with Hernandez.

A senior Israeli diplomatic source was quoted last month by Army Radio as saying Honduras was ready “in principle” to move its embassy to Jerusalem, provided that Netanyahu first makes an official visit to Honduras.

Trump bucked decades of US foreign policy with his December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and setting in motion of plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. In February the US administration announced that it would open its Jerusalem embassy in May 2018 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence according to the Gregorian calendar, several weeks after the Jewish calendar anniversary.

Trump’s decision, welcomed by Israel, has been condemned by many leaders and foreign ministers across the world, who have said the city’s status should be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The move enraged the Palestinians, who have since boycotted the US administration and staged many protests against the decision, some of them violent.

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