Politics Drown out Siren Wail on Memorial Day in Israel

Memorial Day for Israel’s war dead began Tuesday evening with the wail of sirens that signified the start of a 24-hour period of mourning.

But they may not have drowned out the political furor that erupted Monday when Israel Radio announced, with obvious surprise, that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were not on the list of officials who would deliver eulogies at military cemeteries this year.

The veteran Labor Party leaders, both former prime ministers, have roots in the military establishment. Each has served as defense minister, and Rabin was Israel Defense Force chief of staff at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Their inclusion on the list of official Memorial Day speakers was therefore taken for granted. Their unexpected omission, though soon rectified, sent government leaders scurrying for cover against charges of political discrimination in an election year.

The campaign for the June 23 elections pits Labor, led by Rabin, against Likud, headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Observers said the omission appeared to be an attempt by the Likud leadership to exclude opposition leaders from the limelight in the midst of the election campaign.

The Prime Minister’s Office, the Secretariat of the Likud-controlled Knesset and the Likud-led Defense Ministry were each blaming the other Tuesday for the “unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Each claimed it was sure the other had put Rabin and Peres on the speakers list.

Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky publicly apologized for the “oversight.”

Rabin, who returned from a short trip abroad Tuesday, said he agreed to speak Wednesday at ceremonies at the military cemetery in Upper Nazareth.

Peres was to address the ceremonies in Ra’anana. He was replacing Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, the absorption minister who is also rabbi of Ra’anana.

Peretz withdrew his name after many bereaved families objected to a haredi — strictly Orthodox — leader eulogizing war dead when most haredi youths, claiming exemption as yeshiva students, do not perform the military service required of all Israeli citizens.

Memorial Day will honor the 17,418 Israeli men and women who died in defense of the country since the state was founded in 1948.

The 1-minute siren blast at 8 p.m. local time heralded the start of the solemn day on which cafes, movie houses and other places of entertainment are closed.

A memorial candle was lit by President Chaim Herzog at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens addressed a message of condolence to the relatives of Israeli war dead.

The Defense Ministry announced that its rehabilitation department has been caring for some 78,500 soldiers and veterans incapacitated by injuries since 1948.

A siren at 11 a.m. Wednesday will bring the nation to a halt for two minutes of silence in memory of the war dead.

It will herald the start of the main memorial service at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem and military cemeteries in some 40 towns and villages around the country.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday evening, Memorial Day will give way abruptly to festivities celebrating the 44th anniversary of Israel’s independence that will last through Thursday.

This year, 12 Independence Day beacons will be lit to represent the 12 families in Israel who say they can trace their ancestry directly back to Jews expelled from Spain 500 years ago.

The expulsion from Spain in 1492, which is being observed by Sephardic Jews worldwide, was chosen as the theme of this year’s Israel Independence Day observances though there is little to connect the two events.

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