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Netanyahu said to decide on attending Independence Day event despite outcry

Unclear whether PM will speak at ceremony normally kept free of head of government and head of state; Honduras president to light torch at Mount Herzl

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu on April 4, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu on April 4, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly decided to attend the annual torch-lighting ceremony marking the start of Israel’s 70th Independence Day later this month, Hebrew media reported Thursday, after a battle over plans to include him in the event normally kept sanitized from politics.

It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will also address the function, an idea that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has vehemently opposed.

Edelstein has feuded with Culture Minister Miri Regev, who has insisted that Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin take part in the state ceremony, which is run by the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s plans to attend the ceremony were carried by several Hebrew-language news sites, though none sourced their reports. The Prime Minister’s office could not immediately be reached for comment because of the Passover holiday.

Netanyahu’s presence at the ceremony appears to have been made possible thanks to the invitation extended to Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who will be lighting a torch at the ritual.

The presence of a foreign head of state at the ceremony on Mount Herzl will, according to protocol rules, require Netanyahu to also be present, the Hebrew-language news site Ynet said.

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

The newly re-elected Hernandez, who has led a pro-Israel government since he was first elected in 2014, has confirmed his attendance at the April 18 event, Culture Minister Miri Regev said Thursday.

His participation will mark the first time a foreign state leader has been granted that honor.

Beyond the possibility of Netanyahu speaking, Edelstein has argued that even the prime minister’s attendance might be problematic as the Knesset speaker is traditionally the most senior official at the event.

The prime minister and president typically do not attend the event, to keep it from becoming political.

Regev dismissed Edelstein’s concerns while addressing a press conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

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)

“The ceremony torch-lighting ceremony has always been a ceremony of the government, never a ceremony of the Knesset,” Regev said, attacking Edelstein who had called on parliamentarians and staff to boycott the event, should the prime minister insist on attending.

“This is not an event of the Knesset speaker, nor of the prime minister, nor of the president,” she said. “Therefore I said that I would not have two major events, but one big event with the participation of the president, the speaker, the prime minister and the most senior representative of another country who attends.”

Rivlin has appeared to side with tradition, with sources close to the president reportedly saying he will stay away.

As in all previous years, Rivlin does not intend to speak at the ceremony or even attend, and has not even received an invitation, the Ynet news site reported.

Last week, Hadashot TV news reported that Edelstein had told confidants that Netanyahu’s presence at the ceremony was not what bothered him, but rather that of the culture minister.

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)

“There is no limit to her desire to pit lawmakers against each other,” Edelstein was quoted as having said about Regev.

“I have no problem with the prime minister. We straightened things out two weeks ago. But she just cannot understand that the ceremony is not some side gig,” he added.

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.

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.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report. 

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