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Speech also to be broadcast in Tel Aviv's Habima Square

Zelensky to address MKs via Zoom Sunday evening; they’ll listen with mics on mute

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy to host virtual event from Knesset, but will use a committee room rather than plenum; hard-left Joint List MK says he’ll boycott ‘propaganda’ and ‘lies’

In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, early on March 20, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, early on March 20, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Members of the Knesset will gather for a Zoom call on Sunday evening for an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he will try to drum up support for his country in the wake of Russia’s invasion last month.

All Knesset members and ministers have been invited to attend the virtual event at 6 p.m.

Dozens of foreign ambassadors in Israel and former members of Knesset requested permission to participate but were denied, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Lawmakers will be able to tune in from any location, but have been asked to be respectful in their appearance. Their microphones will be muted, apparently to prevent interruptions during the speech.

It is hoped that by holding the event over Zoom, lawmakers who are abroad on delegations will be able to attend.

Some MKs will attend online while a small number of lawmakers may sit together in a Knesset committee room, along with Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy.

The Knesset is in recess until May 8 and renovations are taking place in the lawmakers’ chambers and in the plenum.

Levy will host the event, delivering an opening speech from a committee room and a closing statement after Zelensky’s speech.

In addition to the Zoom link, the 6 p.m. speech will be broadcast on the official Knesset channel, and the Knesset will offer simultaneous translation from Ukrainian to Hebrew.

The Tel Aviv Municipality is hosting a live stream of the speech on a large screen in the city’s central Habima Square. A spokesman for the municipality told The Times of Israel that thousands of people are expected to be in attendance.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy seated in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will watch the speech from his chambers in the Prime Minister’s Office. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has yet to decide where he will view the address.

Dozens of tech workers and service personnel will be involved in the operation to make sure it goes smoothly and to help lawmakers connect remotely. Party administrators will verify lawmakers’ identities to allow them to tune in.

The connection will be thoroughly vetted and monitored to ensure a secure link and prevent any embarrassments, and dozens of computers, screens, and other technological implements will be involved in carrying out tests.

Channel 12 reported Friday that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long presented himself as a close friend of Putin, would attend the speech.

Some 16 MKs from ultra-Orthodox factions may skip the Zoom event altogether due to the midday funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leader in the ultra-Orthodox world, which was taking place in Bnei Brak earlier Sunday with a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people.

Hard-left parliamentarian Ofer Cassif of the Joint List party said he would boycott Zelensky’s speech because it is part of “false propaganda” and “lies” surrounding the war.

“Very sad that good leftists are being deceived after false propaganda — and even expect my friends and me to align with the lies being fed to us,” Cassif said in a tweet.

“I do not take sides in unnecessary wars that harm innocent civilians, strengthen those in power and enrich the lords of war,” Cassif added.

Joint List MK Ofer Cassif at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Joint List, a bloc of mostly Arab parties in the opposition, has yet to announce whether the whole faction will boycott the event. Cassif, who is Jewish, is a member of Hadash, a Communist Arab-Jewish faction in the party with historic ties to the Soviet Union and Russia.

MK Aida Touma Suleiman, also of Hadash, was likely not to attend. A spokesman for faction head Ayman Odeh did not respond to a request for comment.

Cassif’s decision sparked widespread criticism.

“Nothing can justify boycotting the speech of a democratically elected leader who is representing people under savage attack by a totalitarian nuclear power,” said left-wing human rights attorney Michael Sfard.

Russia issues warning over speech

The leadup to Zelensky’s speech has been fraught, as Israel sought to avoid embarrassment and controversy. Russia tried to preempt Zelensky’s comments by conveying its own views, and Ukraine smarted because its president was not allowed to address a formal Knesset plenary session as originally requested.

Zelensky has spoken to other groups of lawmakers around the world to drum up support, including the United States and United Kingdom, but Israel has attempted to retain a position of neutrality in the war. Though Lapid has repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion, Bennett has refrained from doing so.

Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi introduces Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by video at the Capitol in Washington, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

Zelensky had initially sought to give a more formal video address before the Knesset plenum as he has done to other parliaments, but the request was denied by Levy, who explained that the Knesset would not be able to hold such a session while in recess without calling a special meeting.

Critics said Jerusalem’s decision was motivated by an unwillingness to be seen siding too closely with Ukraine as it seeks to maintain working ties with Russia and Bennett tries to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv.

Russia has issued Israel a warning not to become “unbalanced,” saying that too much support for Ukraine could see Israel lose its ability to mediate the conflict, Channel 12 reported Friday.

The warning was reportedly conveyed by Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov during a meeting Wednesday with Levy.

Viktorov asked Levy to allow Russian lawmakers to brief their Israeli counterparts before Zelensky’s speech — a request to which Levy apparently did not accede.

Israel is reliant on coordination with Russia to carry out military strikes in Syria against Iranian proxies there.

Ukrainian MP Olga Vasilevskaya-Smaglyuk said Wednesday that during his Knesset address, Zelensky will invoke his Jewishness, as well as liken his country’s struggle to fight off Russia’s invasion to World War II and Nazi Germany.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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