The European Union has cancelled the Europe Day reception planned for Tuesday in Tel Aviv in order to prevent Israel’s controversial far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, from participating and speaking during the event.
“Regrettably, this year we have decided to cancel the diplomatic reception, as we do not want to offer a platform to someone whose views contradict the values the EU stands for,” the EU said in a statement, stressing that the event itself will still go ahead to celebrate the strong EU-Israel bilateral ties.
Poland and Hungary, considered the two EU countries closest to Israel’s right-wing government, opposed cancelling the reception.
Mr Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, who has toned down his anti-Arab rhetoric since becoming a minister, responded angrily.
“It is a shame that the European Union, which claims to represent the values of democracy and multiculturalism, practises undiplomatic silencing,” he said. “It is an honour and a privilege for me to represent the Israeli government, the heroic Israel defence forces soldiers and the people of Israel in every forum.”
The rare diplomatic snub followed requests by EU representatives to the prime minister’s office over recent days to replace Mr Ben-Gvir with a different minister. However , it was explained that once the minister had accepted, in what appeared to be a random allocation of diplomatic duties, it was impossible to backtrack.
Confounding the problem was that Mr Ben-Gvir and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu have not spoken for days due to sharp differences over the direction of the government. Mr Ben-Gvir criticised Israel’s response to recent rocket fire from Gaza as excessively mild and was angry that he was excluded by Mr Netanyahu from consultations over Israel’s military reaction.
In response, Mr Ben-Gvir ordered his party’s parliamentarians not to participate in Knesset votes until the government acts to implement right-wing policies it promised the electorate. Among the measures he proposed was a significant military operation against West Bank militants and pushing ahead with the controversial judicial overhaul, which is on hold.
Mr Ben-Gvir made it clear he had no intention of stepping aside to be replaced by a more moderate minister, saying he would speak “about the importance of the joint war on terrorism” and would “congratulate the European states, call for boosting co-operation, emphasising the need for unity around the struggle against jihad and terrorism and, at the same time, pointing out that EU countries should not fund initiatives against Israel”.
Benny Gantz, head of the opposition National Unity party, described the decision to choose Mr Ben-Gvir to represent Israel at the EU event as a “diplomatic terrorist attack” which illustrated Mr Netanyahu’s “extreme lack of sound judgment”.