Jerusalem is holding the city’s largest-ever political gathering as more than 45 heads of state and world leaders, including royals, arrive in the holy city to remember the Holocaust and warn of rising antisemitism.
The presidents of France, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine will be joined by kings from Spain and Belgium. Britain’s Prince Charles, as well as the US vice-president, Mike Pence, and speaker of the US house of representatives, Nancy Pelosi, will also attend.
A state dinner at the official residence of the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, will be held on Wednesday night before the fifth World Holocaust Forum on Thursday, which will be hosted by the Yad Vashem remembrance centre on the western hills of Jerusalem.
The event, headlined Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism, comes days ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday.
Much of Israel and Jerusalem will be shut down on Thursday, including the intermittent closure of the country’s main east-west highway to allow dozens of official convoys to ferry leaders from the airport. A no-fly zone for drones and other aircraft had been set up around the main venues.
Israel’s foreign ministry has set up a permanent presence in the airport to welcome delegates and had to beef up its staff of protocol officers with reserves. More than a third of the Israeli police force is being deployed for the event.
While leaders flew in for the event, many made their own plans independent of Israeli authorities.
Russian president Vladamir Putin, French president Emmanuel Macron and Prince Charles are expected meet with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Macron also visited the old city of Jerusalem on Wednesday, where he was filmed by a French journalist working for Le Parisien shouting at an Israeli police officer. He appeared to be yelling at the man, who may have been assigned to his security detail, to leave the church of St Anne’s. The church has been owned by the French government since it was gifted by the Ottomans to Napoleon III in 1856, and is still considered French territory.
“Everybody knows the rules,” he said firmly in English. “Outside, please,” he shouted. “Please respect the rules. They [have been in place] for centuries. They will not change with me.”
Macron’s altercation mirrored that of another French president, Jacques Chirac, who in 1996 refused to enter the same church until Israeli security left.
For Wednesday’s state dinner, the Israeli president’s residence said it had tuned the grand piano, brought in 800 candles and hired 200 servers and ushers to serve Israeli cuisine. For space reasons, tents were set up outside and the heads of the foreign delegations were asked to bring only one guest – usually a senior advisor – with no spouses allowed.
Organisers say Thursday’s event will be the largest gathering of world leaders hosted by the country, although the funerals of assassinated Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and former president Shimon Peres may have attracted larger delegations.
While those events were diplomatic, organisers of the World Holocaust Forum want Thursday’s event, which includes meetings between leaders on the sidelines, to have robust political goals, leading to a “plan of action to combat Jew-hatred and Holocaust denial”.
It is not clear if that will be forthcoming. Several leaders come from countries criticised for not dealing with a spike in violence and hatred against Jews.
Representatives from the four main Allied powers during the second world war, Russia, the US, France and Britain, will speak on Thursday, as will Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Orchestra and choir performances will be performed, and Jewish mourning prayers will be held.
The gathering has been lauded as a moment of rare international consensus, but is not untainted by politics. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, pulled out after being told he was not allowed to speak, but that Putin would.
The two leaders have sparred recently over Putin’s comments accusing Poland of complicity in the start of the second world war. At the same time, Moscow has sought to whitewash the Soviet Union’s 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, also appeared to step into the fight, pulling out of the trip to Jerusalem just this week and instead agreeing to attend an official ceremony on Monday at a former death camp in Poland.
Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has looked to capitalise on the event to rally international support against Iran.
He also wants backing for his attacks on the international criminal court, which is investigating allegations of war crimes in the Palestinian territories. On Tuesday, he called for sanctions against ICC officials, including its prosecutor.