JERUSALEM (AP) — The Eurovision Song Contest announced Thursday that next year’s competition will be held in Tel Aviv, clearing up some of the political controversy surrounding Israel’s hosting of the 2019 competition.
The Israeli government had initially insisted on holding the popular event in Jerusalem. But following a backlash over the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and a subsequent fear of boycotts it dropped the demand to host the world’s largest live music event. The Eurovision said it chose Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and commercial epicenter, over Jerusalem and the southern city of Eilat because of its “creative and compelling bid.”
“Eurovision is a perfect fit for our city, which has been internationally acclaimed for its vibrant energy, creative spirit, its lively cultural scene and its celebration of freedom,” said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. “We are looking forward to host a joyful and nonstop event in the spirit of Tel Aviv.”
Israel won the Eurovision this year with a flashy pop tune called “Toy” by the charismatic, previously unknown singer Netta Barzilai, who dazzled viewers with her feminist lyrics, unconventional appearance and signature chicken dance. Her victory earned Israel the right to host next year’s contest.
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In Europe, capital cities have usually played host. But the city Israel considers its capital is not recognized as such by most of the international community. Hosting the competition in Jerusalem could have presented a predicament for the public broadcasters that make up the European Broadcasting Union, sparking criticism that they would be taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinian-led BDS campaign — which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel — called for the Eurovision contest to be boycotted altogether if it is held in Israel.
Omar Barghouti, the organization’s co-founder, said Eurovision’s decision “dealt a severe blow” to Israel’s “illegal claim of sovereignty over the city,” and called for the Tel Aviv event to be boycotted “as there should be no business as usual with Israeli apartheid.”
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. Israel considers the entire city to be its capital, while the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Israel held the Eurovision contest in Jerusalem without incident following its previous victories, most recently in 1999. Israel’s outspoken culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, lobbied hard for Jerusalem again, saying Israel, and no one else, should decide where the event should take place. She recommended Israel not host the Eurovision at all if Jerusalem was not chosen.
But following the Argentine national football team’s snub of an exhibition game in the city earlier this year Israel backed off its insistence. Fearful of being accused of politicizing the feel-good event, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resolved that the government would not intervene.
Israel’s internal culture wars have also seeped into the Eurovision show, with an ultra-Orthodox member of Netanyahu’s coalition government urging the government to prevent the sabbath from being desecrated. The finale usually takes place on a Saturday night, shortly after the end of the sabbath, meaning that preparations for the show could violate the sacred day.
By choosing Tel Aviv, the Eurovision appears to have made a safer bet. The coastal city is a top international tourist draw, far more associated with its vibrant night life than its politics. It boasts Israel’s most rabid Eurovision fan base. Fans flooded Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in front of City Hall, with some euphorically jumping into a public fountain, after Barzilai was announced the winner this year in Portugal. The City Hall building was lit up to spell “Toy” and electronic signs throughout the city congratulated her.
Tel Aviv, hosting the event for the first time, says it expects around 20,000 tourists to arrive and generate an estimated of NIS 100 million in direct revenues from the campy, gay-friendly spectacle.
The Eurovision says its semifinals will be held in Tel Aviv on May 14 and 16 followed by the Grand Final on May 18.
The Eurovision has previously provided Israel with some cultural touchstones.
“Hallelujah” became the country’s unofficial national song after it won the contest for Israel when it hosted the event in the late 1970s, and Dana International became a national hero and global transgender icon when she won with “Diva” in 1998.