Officials from Yesh Atid and Zionist Union denied a Monday report that their respective Knesset factions were boycotting a state ceremony celebrating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
All Knesset members were invited to the official ceremony Wednesday at the Gush Etzion industrial park, which is being funded by the ministries of culture and education to the tune of NIS 10 million ($2.8 million). According to Channel 1 news, Yesh Atid and Zionist Union decided not only to skip the event, but to bar their MKs from attending.
Within hours, both factions issued denials that any such “boycott,” as the report had called it, was in place.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid tweeted: “To all those concerned, Yesh Atid is not boycotting the ceremony celebrating 50 years of settlement. MK [Chaim] Yelin will be representing us at the ceremony. The report was erroneous.”
Lapid himself attended a July ceremony in the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost, where he praised the local settlers for their “bravery.”
Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said that while he himself had declined the invitation, he had not forbidden his MKs from attending and believed each Zionist Union member could make a personal decision whether or not to attend.
In a statement from the party, the Zionist Union accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of being preoccupied with divisive politics. “When we get into power, we will deal with deeds and not with speeches,” the statement said.
The statement was referring to fiery responses to the initial report that came from right-wing lawmakers and settler leaders criticizing the two opposition parties.
Culture Minister Miri Regev said she was “ashamed that a party that calls itself the Zionist Union” would not be attending the ceremony. She said that earlier leaders within the Labor movement, such as former prime ministers David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, would have disapproved of the apparent choice by their successors.
A statement from the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing Israeli settlements, struck a similar chord.
“The Labor Party was once an active partner in the establishment of the settlements, and for this it deserves recognition and thanks,” it said. However, in a pointed dig, it went on to call on “all parties that view Zionism and settlement as an important value to participate in this festive event.”
Yesha chairman Yigal Dilmoni told The Times of Israel that Gabbay had received a personal phone call inviting him to the ceremony. Responding to reports that Gabbay refused to attend because he was not asked to speak, Dilmoni said that nobody was asked to address the state gathering other than the prime minister. “Not even a representative of the settlement movement is speaking,” he added.
Earlier Monday, the Peace Now settlement watchdog sent a letter to each member of the opposition, imploring them not to take part in the ceremony.
“There is no reason to celebrate. The essence of the event undermines the two-state vision, and there is no justification for taking part in it,” the letter read.
The group referred to the ceremony as “another step toward the creeping annexation policy of the Netanyahu government.”
It will be the fourth event in the West Bank that Netanyahu has addressed in the last three months.
In August, he spoke at a similar celebration marking 50 years of settlement in Samaria (the northern West Bank). Two weeks prior, he addressed a ceremony inaugurating a new neighborhood in Beitar Illit, a large ultra-Orthodox settlement south of Jerusalem. And in June, he spoke at an event installing a new medical school at Ariel University, which was funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Much of the international community views West Bank settlements as illegal and has frequently tried to pressure Israel to halt construction beyond the Green Line. The Palestinians say it is one of the major obstacles to reaching a peace deal.