Analysis

How Netanyahu Hijacked Israel's Independence Day Ceremony

The Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony was a blatant, thuggish, shameful act of high-level fraud on live prime-time television

Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the ceremony marking Israel's 70th Independence anniversary in Jerusalem, April 18, 2018
Emil salman

It’s not every day that Israelis get to watch a blatant, thuggish, shameful act of high-level fraud on live prime-time television. But the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony provided us with this rare experience.

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The participants were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the stage and Culture Minister Miri Regev, who was responsible for the ceremony, in the stands. Like two thieves in the night, they implemented the plot they had concocted earlier to take over the most bipartisan, consensual ceremony of the year and turn it, too, into the personal property of “the prime minister and his wife.”

Like fraudsters who spin a web of lies to conceal their true intent, they signed an “agreement,” issued festive statements to the press and created a pretense that the dispute had been settled and the rules of the game had been set, only to crudely overturn them without a qualm as the culture minister rejoiced in the wings. Regev, overcome by schadenfreude, even hugged Sara Netanyahu, who seemed to recoil a bit from the clingy familiarity forced upon her.

Does anyone have any doubt today that Netanyahu and Regev never even dreamed of honoring their public commitment about the length of the prime minister’s speech at the ceremony? They surely burst out laughing afterward, and perhaps even slapped each other on the back and exchanged high-fives over the successful ruse they had pulled over on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Netanyahu spoke for almost three times as long as he had promised. It was a speech in every respect, not a “greeting” or “a comment on the Declaration of Independence” (aside from one artificial sentence at the beginning).

>> Knesset Speaker Makes Independence Day Deal With Netanyahu <<

It included numerous personal and propagandistic elements – Netanyahu implicitly equated himself with the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion; the first prime minister “waged a struggle under difficult conditions,” and the current one is doing the same. He boasted of his close relationships with world leaders like the Indian prime minister while forgetting to mention that shortly after Netanyahu visited India, Narendra Modi visited the Palestinian Authority and made a pilgrimage to the grave of Yasser Arafat, whom he deemed a great leader.

The only thing missing was the slogan “You want elections? We’ll have elections!” and for the first entertainer in the lineup, Sarit Hadad, to start singing “You’re a star” to Netanyahu, as she did at a Likud party rally on the eve of the 2013 election.

This is exactly what Edelstein, the event’s victim, had been warning of for weeks. Not everyone wanted to hear him. Edelstein cautioned about a significant change in the ceremony rules – of primacy being taken from the Knesset speaker, who represents the Knesset, which represents the people, and given to the prime minister instead – which until then had been scrupulously upheld.

The speech was just the most blatant part of this. Behind the scenes, the culture minister had plotted additional steps.

Netanyahu at the ceremony marking Israel's 70th Independence anniversary in Jerusalem, April 18, 2018
Emil salman

The agreement between Netanyahu and Edelstein stated that the prime minister and his wife would enter the plaza and sit down, and then the Knesset speaker and his wife would enter, accompanied by the Knesset Guard, as is the case every year. But shortly before the ceremony began on Wednesday night, Edelstein discovered that Regev had shanghaied a few soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command to march toward the royal couple and welcome them. There was nothing he could do but grit his teeth.

Regev, whether with full authority, or as her own spontaneous initiative to pile coddling on top of fawning on top of flattery for Bibi and Sara, also decided that the master of ceremonies should make the traditional request for permission to open the event not of the Knesset speaker, but of the prime minister and the speaker together. “Gentlemen,” the script for the ceremony said, not “sir.” Thus we witnessed the embarrassing sight of the master of ceremonies asking them both for permission to begin, and Edelstein freezing, not knowing what to do, while Netanyahu nodded.

To say the Knesset speaker was boiling with rage would be the biggest understatement in the state’s 70 years of existence. In his view, it wasn’t his own honor that was trampled into the dust; rather, an event that many consider almost sacred was desecrated and defiled.

Two rounds of sparring took place in the weeks before the grotesque drama that preceded the torch-lighting ceremony. But if we thought everything had been settled last week, when the warring parties met and shook hands and issued joint press statements, we were wrong.

The third round is still ahead of us. This time, we will be spared the pretense that accompanied the ones that came before it, as if the dispute were between Edelstein and Regev while Netanyahu wasn’t involved at all, but was staying above the fray. This time, it will be Edelstein versus Netanyahu, while Regev will return to her natural place as the court jester, a provocative figure whose main reason for existence is to kiss up to the prime minister and his wife while smearing their rivals.

Edelstein is a veteran politician who’s already seen quite a bit in his life. But the next day, people who spoke with him said that even he sounded as if he were in complete shock over what had occurred the previous night.

Sara Netanyahu at a ceremony marking Israel's 70th Independence anniversary in Jerusalem, April 18, 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

Let’s ignore the fact that the prime minister himself – the prime minister, not some low-level hack! – sealed the deal that resolved the quarrel and signed off on the ceremony’s format. But for heaven’s sake, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement of which not one word was actually honored.

Moreover, the director general of the Culture and Sports Ministry sent a letter to the prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, and the Knesset’s director general, Albert Sakharovich, detailing the procedure: “The prime minister will speak for five minutes and the Knesset speaker for seven minutes, so as not to interfere with the planned broadcasts and ceremonies.”

Edelstein exceeded his limit by one minute and 20 seconds. Netanyahu exceeded his by nine minutes.

Edelstein’s conclusion was that Netanyahu and Regev pretended to go along with him and accede to his demands because they didn’t want him to carry out his public threat that the entire Knesset, including the Knesset Guard and the speaker, would boycott the ceremony. They understood how much damage that would cause. They therefore lied to him and threw sand in his eyes and those of the entire public.

Edelstein spared Netanyahu a huge embarrassment, and in exchange, he was massively humiliated. That’s Netanyahu.

>> At 70, Israel Has Shunned Herzl's Dream for Netanyahu's Bleak Vision <<

The next day, his friends asked him, “How could you not have known? How could you not have foreseen it? How could you not have guessed? You know who Netanyahu and Regev are, and what their moral standards are.”

And he answered despairingly, “Did you expect me to ask the prime minister to give me a bank guarantee? He promised me, he shook my hand, he put out a press statement, as did the cultured minister. What was I supposed to do?”

Edelstein and Netanyahu didn’t exchange a word on Mount Herzl. Not before the ceremony, not during it and not after it. “We aren’t speaking,” the Knesset speaker told friends from the Likud party who asked how he was doing. “I’ve exhausted my quota of words with him.”

It’s amazing how Edelstein has found himself in the shoes of his predecessor, who is now the president. Reuven Rivlin got entangled in similar battles with Netanyahu and was ousted as speaker of the Knesset. He, too, is no longer on speaking terms with the prime minister.

The current speaker doesn’t intend to let what happened pass in silence. He will respond in a time, place and manner of his own choosing.

After the ceremony Wednesday night, he went to the Knesset, as he does every year, to meet with the employees, members of the Knesset Guard all those who had toiled over this event all year, and thanked them personally. But this time, he didn’t just thank them. He also apologized that they had been dragged against their will into this swamp, whose stench overpowered any whiff of statesmanship and bipartisanship.