Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein told a standing-room-only crowd in Tel Aviv on Sunday that he appreciated the description of the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” in the recent US State Department annual report — a shift from previous reports that called it “Israeli-occupied” — saying it marks an important first step toward the recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.
Edelstein, who headed the Knesset’s Golan lobby from 1999 to 2006, said that he “sincerely believe[s] that if elections on April 9 will be successful for [Likud], there will be at least a very serious debate about [annexing Judea and Samaria].”
Edelstein, who won the top slot in the pre-election Likud Knesset primary and is thus number two on the party’s Knesset slate behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also doubled down on his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. “The creation of a Palestinian state is part of the problem and not part of the solution,” he said.
Edelstein was speaking at the latest in a series of English-language events co-hosted by The Times of Israel along with the Tel Aviv International Salon and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, leading up to Israel’s national elections on April 9. The Knesset speaker was interviewed by The Times of Israel’s Jewish World editor, Amanda Borschel-Dan.
One of the most well-known refuseniks in the Soviet Union, Edelstein spent three years at hard labor in Siberian gulags on trumped-up drug charges because of his involvement in teaching Hebrew classes. He was eventually one of the last refuseniks to be released, in 1987, when he immigrated to Israel. He has been a member of Knesset since 1996.
Just minutes before the High Court of Justice granted a petition barring far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Michael Ben Ari from running in the upcoming elections, Edelstein defended the far-right leader’s right to run. At the same time, when questioned about a Likud “embrace” of Kahanists, he was quick to draw a line.
“I have a bad habit of saying quite openly what I think, so if Likud would embrace Kahanists and try to bring them into the party list [via Otzma Yehudit], I would be opposed to it,” Edelstein said. At the same time, he affirmed the party’s right to run.
“What I didn’t like, both as a Likud member but even more as the speaker of the Knesset, is this very strange debate apropos this union of all the parties of the national Zionist camp, whether it’s legitimate for Dr. Michael Ben Ari to [again] be a member of Knesset or not, or to be part of the coalition or not,” he said. “We want the Knesset to be a place for everyone who has a constituency in this country.”
At the same time, Edelstein was unwilling to extend a welcome to other fringe parties.
“We want certain limits, shall we say, that people on the super extreme right, and super extreme left don’t belong in the Knesset – that’s also legitimate,” he said. “Because we do have parties like [the Arab party] Balad, where the Supreme Court judges in one discussion quite openly asked a certain member of that party if, with her views and ideology, she belongs to the Israeli parliament — and that’s not a right-wing politician, that’s judges on the Supreme Court.”
But, Edelstein said, “for 70 years Israeli democracy has been inclusive, and if we want to change that we have to be very careful and we must have a very in-depth and serious discussion, and not just use it as part of a political agenda.”
Moments later, event organizer Jay Shultz came to the stage to quietly inform Borschel-Dan that the High Court of Justice had cleared Balad to run in the elections, evoking a smattering of boos.
A visibly disappointed Edelstein stopped to address this before responding to the next question.
“I want to say one thing, judging at least by the previous Knesset,” he said. “Everyone in this room for whom coexistence and the State of Israel is dear, should close his or her eyes for 30 seconds and think whether the state of Israeli society and the state of coexistence in this country would have been better without [Balad leaders] Jamal Zahalka, Hanin Zoabi and Basel Ghattas, or worse?”
“I didn’t have much doubt that Balad would be approved by the Supreme Court. But at the same time, I do think we have to invest some thought because when Basel Ghattas, a member of Knesset, was smuggling phones to terrorists in prison, he didn’t just hurt the Israeli Knesset by doing that, but he hurt even more the Arabs in this country and the state of coexistence. And this is something we have to consider in a serious public discussion,” Edelstein said.
Edelstein would later tweet: “The news of the court’s erroneous decision came in the middle of a meeting with 400 new immigrants in Tel Aviv. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine — was the situation of Israeli society and coexistence worse without Zoabi, Zahalka and Ghattas, or perhaps better?”
הידיעה על ההחלטה השגויה של בית המשפט הגיעה באמצע מפגש עם 400 עולים חדשים בתל אביב. ביקשתי מהם לעצום עיניהם ולדמיין- האם מצב החברה הישראלית ודו הקיום היה גרוע יותר בלי זועבי זחאלקה וגטאס, או אולי טוב יותר?@TimesofIsrael pic.twitter.com/2jJIYcxSaI
— Yuli Edelstein ???????? (@YuliEdelstein) March 17, 2019
Asked about crumbling public faith in democratic institutions such as the Knesset, the police and the military, Edelstein said that most democracies around the world are suffering a lack of confidence from citizens. He cited “the main candidate to become next prime minister of Great Britain,” British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been accused of allowing anti-Semitism from the far left to flourish under his watch.
“So we are in bad shape, as far as democracies around the world,” he said.
His advice: Members of the public should get involved.
“The speaker of the Knesset doesn’t elect members of the Knesset. The Israeli public does,” said Edelstein. He said it was a hopeful sign that at least the three parties that hold primary elections – Likud, Labor, and Meretz — all voted in serious candidates. “I think that the message of the registered members of the parties was very clear: ‘We don’t want our representatives to fly balloons or stand on their heads, we want them to work quite seriously.’”
When pressed about how the public can have faith in democratic institutions when a prime minister who is close to indictment accuses them of being corrupt, Edelstein said, “I don’t think the prime minister is accusing any institutions of being corrupt. He feels that he is being chased for the last several years. That’s his perception. And I sincerely hope that all these processes will soon be over, and we will have clear results, because with this, it’s not about public opinion.”