JERUSALEM (JTA) — The president of Honduras canceled a trip to Israel and his participation in the torchlighting ceremony at the annual Independence Day ceremony amid calls for the invitation to be rescinded.
Juan Orlando Hernandez withdrew on Monday following the rescission calls over accusations of gross violations of human rights in his Central American country. Hernandez had confirmed his participation in the Mount Herzl event last week.
Saying the Honduras leader would not be attending, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “regrets his not coming and welcomes the friendship between the two countries.”
Some reports said that Hernandez had reconsidered his participation due to the criticism of his government, while others said he was reconsidering due to the political controversy between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein. Edelstein had threatened to lead a boycott of the ceremony by the Knesset; he said he was protecting a tradition by which only the Knesset speaker, as the head of a body meant to represent all Israelis, gives an address.
On Sunday, a compromise reportedly was reached that would have Netanyahu lighting a 13th torch and giving a short speech at the ceremony, with Edelstein giving the keynote address.
Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party, in a letter to Culture Minister Miri Regev, said including Hernandez in the ceremony is a “scandalous decision that legitimizes a president responsible for gross violations of human rights in his country, solely to provide an excuse for Netanyahu to attend as well.”
Hernández was to have lit the torch at the April 18 ceremony along with a Foreign Ministry official representing its Agency for International Development Cooperation, or Mashav, program. Hernández graduated from a Mashav enrichment course in 1992 at the beginning of his diplomatic career.
Hernandez’s participation in the torchlighting would have mandated that Netanyahu be present. Traditionally, the highest-ranking government official at the annual Yom Haatzmaut eve ceremony is the speaker of the Knesset. According to protocol, the presence of a foreign president at an official state ceremony obligates the attendance of the prime minister.