'An Outrageous Decision': Controversy Burns Over Honduran Strongman President Lighting Israel Independence Day Torch

Showcasing the most bitter of Israeli political spats, the possibility of Netanyahu delivering an Independence Day speech has caused rifts in politics at home and abroad

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his wife, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, attend his inauguration ceremony, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 27, 2018.
\ JORGE CABRERA/ REUTERS

It has become the most bitter of Israeli internal domestic political spats: whether or not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver a speech at Israel’s 70th anniversary Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony on April 18. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the senior official who traditionally presides over the torch-lighting, has threatened to boycott the event in protest if Netanyahu insists on appearing, in a very public internal showdown between the two Likud politicians.  

While Netanyahu, Edelstein and Culture Minister Miri Regev reached an agreement in which Netanyahu would be given the honor of lighting a torch, the controversy has expanded to reach overseas, and raising the question of whether a controversial foreign leader, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who heads a regime charged with human rights violations and is himself beset by charges of corruption, deserves the honor of being the first foreign head of state to light a torch on Israel’s Independence Day.

Amid the controversy, Hernández was considering on Monday to cancel his attendance.

MK Tamar Zandberg, the newly elected leader of the Meretz party, has called on Culture Minister Miri Regev, who is in charge of organizing the ceremony, to rescind her invitation to Hernandez and cancel his appearance. Regev broke the news of Hernandez’s participation with great fanfare on April 5, saying she was "happy and proud" that the Honduran leader had agreed to attend.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 2, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

In her letter of protest, Zandberg told Regev that it had been "an outrageous decision that gives legitimacy to a president who is responsible for severe human rights violations in his country."

She charged that Regev’s decision to invite Hernandez was only made in order to justify Netanyahu’s appearance at the ceremony. Official diplomatic protocol would require the prime minister to accompany a foreign president taking part in an official state ceremony here.

Zandberg said that settling an internal Likud feud in Netanyahu’s favor was a poor excuse for Regev bestowing upon a human rights violator one of Israel’s greatest honors. In her letter, she recounted visit reports of Honduras’s “corrupt and dangerous police forces” and military, which have been charged with being responsible for kidnapping, rape and other “serious violations of human rights in the past few years, including torture, threats and extra-judicial killings of reporters and activists for the environment, farmers' rights, LGBT rights and Indians' rights."

Zandberg wrote further: “the words 'And to the glory of the State of Israel,' uttered before each torch is lit, will pale in the face of this unwanted guest and the circumstances surrounding his invitation."

Regev responded, calling Zandberg’s charges “baseless slander” peddled by “bored” leftists seeking headlines, and defended Hernandez as a democratically elected leader recognized internationally for battling “with determination and success” against drug cartels and criminal gangs and lowering the rate of crime in his country.

Hernández was invited to participate in the opening ceremony of Independence Day alongside representatives of Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation (known in Hebrew by its acronym, Mashav), one of whose courses he attended in 1992. He is the program's first graduate to go on to become the president of a state. Mashav, which is part of the Foreign Ministry, is responsible for Israel’s foreign aid, cooperation and development programs, and trains people in agriculture, education, medicine, women's empowerment and other fields.

Honduras was one of the handful of countries to come out in support of the United States' decision, announced last December, to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, and it also voted against the UN General Assembly's condemnation of the decision. Honduras has been reported to be contemplating joining Guatemala in following the American lead by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as well.

On the same day that Regev announced that Hernandez would be given the torch-lighting honor, Honduras was in the headlines in the US – after President Donald Trump condemned a "caravan" of illegal immigrants from that country (and also Guatemala and El Salvador), joining an exodus of people described by Buzzfeed as fleeing their country’s “exorbitant homicide rates, crippling corruption, increasing political persecution, and floundering economy.”

Last month, the UN Human Rights Commission  issued a report charging that the Honduran government violated human rights in its clampdown on protests that took place between Hernandez’s re-election last November and his inauguration in January.

The report said that “members of the Honduran security forces, in particular the military police, used excessive – including lethal – force to control and disperse protests”

It found that “at least 22 civilians and one police officer were killed during the protests. Of these, at least 16 people, including two women and two children, were shot dead by the security forces. The report also documents the killing of 15 individuals in the run-up to the elections, including party candidates, municipal councillors and activists.”

No charges, it said, had been brought against any member of the security forces in relation to the killings and injuries.