Israel Celebrates Its 70th Israeli Style: With Rancor and Bickering

An Israeli Air Force aerobatic team rehearsing on Monday for Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebration.

JERUSALEM — Foreign leaders were invited, then uninvited.

A plan for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead the ceremony drew threats of a boycott.

And the organizers waited so late to invite an American television star to represent the greater Jewish diaspora that she could not make it.

Israel’s landmark 70th anniversary celebration on Wednesday night was meant to be a stunning display of unity that transcends the usual divisions and cacophony of life here. But the ceremony honoring Israel’s founding in 1948 has already been marred by weeks of unseemly politicking and almost farcical twists and turns, all raucously played out in the Israeli news media.

Much of the rancor has been over Mr. Netanyahu’s role in what is traditionally a nongovernmental ceremony run by the speaker of Parliament, a state body that represents all Israeli citizens, and bickering within Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party over who will lead the proceedings.

Just one day before the event, the fight was still on over how many words Mr. Netanyahu would get to speak as opposed to the Knesset speaker, Yuli-Yoel Edelstein. As of Tuesday evening, Mr. Edelstein was to be allowed 700 words, and Mr. Netanyahu 500.

For many Israelis the undignified backdrop was just the latest indication that the country’s leadership had forfeited any semblance of stateliness for partisanship and politics, and a sign of the country’s many divisions.

“It’s supposed to be about Israel and our story and not who takes credit for it,” said Micah Goodman, a popular Israeli philosopher of Jewish thought. “Instead of a moment that transcends tribalism and politics it became somehow very political. This is how you ruin the birthday party.”

Others, however, view the ruckus as part of the usual maelstrom and the informal, freewheeling spirit that is quintessentially Israeli.

“This is very typical for Israel — something that epitomizes Israeli culture,” said Avi Shilon, an Israeli historian who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and N.Y.U. Tel Aviv.

“When you think of Israeli achievements it starts from the balagan in Israeli society,” he said, using a Hebrew term for mess or chaos, borrowed from Russian. “Everyone wants to take it to their own direction. Sometimes this helps you to invent new methods.”

“The problem,” he added, “is of course if you want to be a serious state — and we are already 70 years old — you can expect to maintain some tradition.”

Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, but the holiday, like all national holidays here, will be observed according to the Hebrew calendar.

Palestinians generally mark what they call the Nakba, or the catastrophe, of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of them became refugees, on May 15, the day after Israel’s declaration of independence according to the Gregorian calendar. But some Arab citizens of Israel, who make up more than 20 percent of the population, are planning to hold a Nakba march on Thursday.

The ceremony promises to be a spectacle of almost Olympic proportions. On stage, three live orchestras and 1,600 people will render the digitally augmented story of Israel from Mount Sinai to the so-called start-up nation, while 300 drones are on standby to create illuminated symbols in the sky.

The main organizer of the event is Miri Regev, Israel’s minister for culture and sport, an often provocative, populist politician — the newspaper Haaretz has called her “Trump in high heels” — and a fierce loyalist of Mr. Netanyahu.

One day last week, she strode across the stage during a tour of the site at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, flanked by reporters and television cameras. A former brigadier general in the Israeli military, she told the chief engineer that she wanted “zero casualties” in this event. In 2012, an Israeli Army officer was killed during a rehearsal for the ceremony’s flag parade when a lighting rig fell on her.

On the way out Ms. Regev instructed an aide to check on the number of portable toilets and quantity of toilet paper, so there wouldn’t be problems like in the past. “Write that down!” she said.

“This will be a breathtaking display, the likes of which we have never seen before in Israel,” she told reporters.

But many people apportion much of the blame for the brouhaha on her campaign to have her patron, Mr. Netanyahu, lead the ceremony instead of Mr. Edelstein, whom Ms. Regev views as a potential rival within Likud.

Mr. Edelstein said he would boycott the ceremony if Mr. Netanyahu gave the keynote speech. Carmi Gillon, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, called on Israelis to switch off their televisions while Mr. Netanyahu spoke. Netanyahu supporters said Mr. Gillon should be the last person to preach about prime ministers, since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on his watch.

Last week, the two sides announced a compromise that was to have ended the feud.

The prime minister’s office said that Mr. Netanyahu would light one of 12 torches, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, in the name of all the governments of Israel and, like the other torch lighters, make brief remarks relating to Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Edelstein said in a video statement that the Parliament, “which represents all the state’s citizens, will lead the ceremony. To my regret the arguments that arose have clouded the public atmosphere and I am sorry for that.”

But that was not the end of the blunders and mishaps.

The idea of inviting world leaders was quietly dropped after it appeared that few would respond positively, and the organizers belatedly realized that a large foreign presence would snarl traffic and disrupt the festivities for ordinary Israelis.

Yet President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras somehow made it to the prestigious list of torch lighters, the first foreign leader given that honor.

Honduras was one of nine countries to vote against a United Nations resolution condemning the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and its congress passed a measure last week urging the government to move its embassy to Jerusalem. The formal reason given for the honor was that Mr. Hernández is the only graduate of an Israeli government leadership development course to have become president.

Still, the choice baffled many Israelis, not least because Honduras abstained from the 1947 United Nations vote for the partition of Palestine, paving the way for Israel’s creation. Last week, after Israeli critics noted Mr. Hernández won his second term in a disputed election and raised questions about his country’s corruption and human rights record, he canceled.

Israel often tries to include an Arab citizen as a torch lighter, though many would not want to be associated with the celebration. This year, the spiritual leader of the small but loyal Druze community will light a torch.

Some Israelis raised questions about another torch lighter, the Israeli actor Ze’ev Revach, who has been accused of sexual harassment. The case against him was closed for lack of evidence.

Mayim Bialik, the American actress and neuroscientist who stars in “The Big Bang Theory,” was chosen to represent the Jewish diaspora but was invited only recently. She could not change her filming schedule and so isn’t going.

Ms. Regev said the lessons had been learned for next year.

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