Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein doubled down on his threat to pull the legislature from its usual role at the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony in a letter to all MKs and Knesset workers on Thursday.
The letter came in light of an ongoing feud between Edelstein and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev. Regev is presiding over the festivities honoring the state’s 70th year, and would like to buck tradition and have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak at the opening event on the evening of April 18.
“If the Knesset is not the only presenter of the ceremony, unfortunately the Knesset and its people cannot take part in it,” Edelstein wrote.
For the past 57 years, the Knesset speaker has been the highest-ranking official and the speaker at the torch-lighting event on Mount Herzl, marking the transition from somber Remembrance Day ceremonies to celebrating Israel’s independence. The Knesset Guard marches during the ceremony, and the Knesset staff takes an active part in the production.
“I am not doing this for my honor... but for the honor of the Knesset, so there will not be more disputes in Israel. The intention of the ceremony is for it not to belong to one tribe or another in Israeli society. It is so beloved because it shows what is sometimes hidden from us day to day: Our society is one human fabric, whose great achievements come from our spirit of unity.
Therefore, it is the Knesset, in which representatives of every man and woman in Israel gather, in which Israeli society is represented of all of its sectors, groups and diversity, which traditionally leads this special state ceremony with unity and dignity,” Edelstein said.
For the first time, Edelstein specifically mentioned Regev as the person who “wants to make significant changes in the traditional torch-lighting ceremony that takes place on Mount Herzl.
“If this happens, it will be the first time since the establishment of the state in which the most national event on the calendar is harmed, which many see as holy for Israel,” Edelstein added.
Edelstein wrote the letter because there were murmurs among the Knesset’s staff following media reports, and he wanted to clarify his position.
Regev said, “The torch-lighting ceremony is organized and run by the government of Israel. The fact that the government respected the Knesset speaker over the years does not turn the ceremony into a Knesset ceremony.
“Unlike what was written, there will not be a significant change, nor will the national character of the ceremony be changed,” Regev said. “What significant change is Edelstein complaining about in his letter? A speech by the prime minister will make it less official? Every year there’s a video greeting by the prime minister. Apparently the Knesset speaker is bothered by the prime minister’s presence and not his speech.”
Regev also said she has spoken to many citizens in recent days, and none of them understands why Edelstein opposes having the prime minister and president at the ceremony.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett offered a compromise, saying that Netanyahu can speak before him at the Israel Prize ceremony on May 19.
The education minister is usually the only speaker, while the president and prime minister attend.
“We should celebrate 70 years for the State of Israel as a unifying and not a dividing event,” Bennett said, “which will leave happiness and pride in the hearts of the nation.
“In light of the Israel Prize ceremony being a first-rate official event, and the winners expressing more than anyone the best of the diversity of Israeli society, I see this as an appropriate offer that respects the prime minister, and a worthy solution to the dispute that was created,” he added.
After the dispute first arose in November, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu would not attend the ceremony, because the high security required would make it difficult for bereaved families to visit their loved ones’ graves on Mount Herzl in the hours preceding the event.
Coalition chairman David Amsalem denied that the controversy came about because Netanyahu wants to gain political points.
“When the prime minister wants to say something to the nation, the entire media stand in line. He doesn’t have to speak at any ceremony; he can have a barbecue at home... He wants to give a speech from an official, state perspective,” Amsalem said.
He added that Netanyahu’s relations with Edelstein were not damaged by the dispute.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid came out in support of Edelstein on Thursday, blaming the problem on Netanyahu, and saying the prime minister was “harming an official state ceremony for political gain or a speech on TV.
“This isn’t his platform; it’s the people of Israel’s platform,” Lapid said. “The torch-lighting ceremony is a rare moment of Israeli unity and its power is in that it is not political and does not belong to any party... I completely support the Knesset speaker’s stance on the dignity of the Knesset in the face of a wild political attack by the prime minister and those who do his bidding.”
Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said he “totally supports the insistence of the Knesset speaker to protect the little bit of statesmanlike behavior we have left here. Independence Day belongs to the Israeli public and not just the ruling party.”
In the coalition, several MKs from Kulanu voiced support for Edelstein, with faction chairman Roy Folkman saying: “The Knesset speaker is a state symbol who is promoting a discourse of unity that is so needed at this time. His attitude should lead the central ceremonies in the independence celebrations.”