Along with the new Jewish year comes a new Knesset session – beginning October 30 – making Yom Kippur a good time for introspection not only for each individual Jew but for Israel’s parliament as well.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in his office last week, it was clear that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein didn’t think 5776 was a year the legislature should be especially proud of and believes there are MKs who should be atoning for their sins.
Some may want to focus on one line in the confessional prayer that reads: “And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.”
“It keeps me up at night,” Edelstein said, referring to the uncivil and sometimes violent tone the discourse can take in the Knesset.
“The tone in the Knesset influences the public. When we call each other fascists and traitors, that flows outwards, and things can end badly,” he warned.
“If two drivers curse at each other in an intersection, in the end one might pull out a knife.”
The temptation for lawmakers to pander to voters rather than try to set an example is great, Edelstein added.
“As an MK, if I curse and use the worst words against a left-wing person and then meet with voters that night, they’ll applaud me. That’s not how it should be. The public can’t complain about MKs not speaking nicely and cursing and behaving inappropriately if they reward those MKs time and again,” he said.
In case you think Edelstein was talking only about Likud wild card MK Oren Hazan, for whom the Knesset speaker is a constant target, he added, perhaps hinting at firebrand Culture Minister Miri Regev, while refusing to name names, “I’m not just talking about those who were elected once.”
The solution, Edelstein said, is not for parties to cancel their primaries but for voters to be more responsible and make sure that when they are “voting for the youth slot, not to name someone personally” – another reference to Hazan – “remember that we can be very successful in an election, or some MKs can quit and new ones will get in.”
Edelstein took issue with those who say the Likud, specifically, has a problem in this area, and defended his party’s backbenchers, saying “some are excellent.”
“Yes, we also need to deal with MKs in the Likud. It won’t help if I criticize MKs from Meretz because I’m on the Right. But as Knesset speaker, I say there’s a problem in the Likud and in other parties. It’s a phenomenon that takes place when a party grows or when there’s a new party that thinks it will just get three seats and then it gets 10.”
He also said that the media plays a role in encouraging MKs to try to get attention by giving more coverage to shocking statements.
“The public doesn’t know which MKs passed laws to help the disabled and Holocaust survivors, but they know the MKs who said words that I won’t repeat,” he lamented.
This isn’t the first time Edelstein has spoken out against the way MKs use their bully pulpit – he used his speech at the national Independence Day ceremony to do the same – but he continued to implore politicians to strive to improve.
Edelstein commended efforts the Knesset has already made on this front, such as the Ethics Committee’s taking inappropriate language and name-calling more seriously, and the Suspension Law, which allows the Knesset, in a three-quarters vote, to dismiss lawmakers who support terrorism.
The Suspension Law, which passed a final vote in July, is highly controversial, but Edelstein contended that it’s necessary.
“We can’t let people cross all the lines. And if they do, then the law will be used. I don’t think it will be used often because there are obstacles [like requiring approval by 90 MKs], but I still think that this weapon needs to exist because lines were crossed,” he stated.
While there hasn’t been a specific incident reported of an MK supporting terrorism since the law was passed, Edelstein criticized the Joint List MKs who inspired the legislation, saying they have continued to incite.
“When you see what an MK wrote on the day that the ninth president [Shimon Peres] was hospitalized, it’s crossing all the lines. I wouldn’t wish death on my worst enemy, someone I don’t respect at all. It’s not crossing a political line, it’s crossing a human line,” he said. “We like to talk about unity, coexistence and common denominators, but that won’t happen if we don’t fight the extremes on both sides. If you don’t stop those who won’t allow coexistence, we won’t get anywhere.”
Edelstein was disappointed at Joint List MKs for boycotting former president Peres’s funeral.
“They didn’t come, and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas came. The MKs are more extreme than Abbas, who’s not exactly peace-loving,” he said.
However, Edelstein commended mayors of Arab municipalities for paying a shiva call to Peres’s family, saying that they’re the more “responsible leadership” of Israeli Arabs.
“In the spirit of High Holy Day introspection, we are also to blame for the Joint List. We created them by raising the electoral threshold. People who have little in common joined together, and the extremists are pulling the others down, others who might have acted for coexistence and probably wouldn’t have boycotted Peres’s funeral,” he posited.
Looking at what’s expected for 5777, Edelstein emphasized the need for the Western Wall compromise, which would expand the existing egalitarian section of the wall by Robinson’s Arch, to be implemented.
He said that both sides – the Israeli government and Orthodox establishment, and the Conservative and Reform movements – need to come to terms with the framework and move forward.
“I was very happy that a compromise was reached. We can’t put up barricades blocking Diaspora Jews and the Conservative and Reform movements,” he stated.
“I don’t think it’s good for them, either, to constantly criticize Israel for being so Orthodox. It’s our right, and we deserve an appropriate prayer space.”
The compromise reached, which is currently frozen mainly due to haredi parties’ opposition, “doesn’t hurt anyone, not traditional worshipers and not the other streams,” Edelstein argued.
The speaker said he doesn’t expect the haredim to help implement the compromise, just not to hinder it.
“We can’t be in a situation where it’s harming our relations with the Diaspora. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of Jews in North America are hearing in the pulpits people who feel rejected by us, like they’re second- class Jews. And even if that’s not true, that’s the message they’re getting. We have to make every effort,” he asserted.
At the same time, he called on the Reform and Conservative movements to meet with MKs regularly, not only in times of crisis, to have an open line of dialogue and deepen mutual understanding.
“No one should take [non-Orthodox Jews] for granted or spit in their faces. On the other hand, the Conservative and Reform movements must know how to behave maturely... This is the country. Sometimes there’s one government, sometimes there’s another... This can’t turn into not wanting to defend Israel from those who oppose democratic values and human rights, like the BDS movement. Israel is a value that is above one government decision or another,” he added.
Still, Edelstein insisted that Diaspora Jews’ connection to Israel is “not as bad as it’s made out to be,” and in general, Israel is not isolated.
On that note, he was cautiously optimistic about reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to hold a regional peace conference and that the Zionist Union may join the coalition.
He said that Zionist Union Chairman Isaac Herzog would serve Israel better as foreign minister than opposition leader, and adding another party to the coalition would only increase stability and allow the government and the Knesset to do more for Israeli citizens.
As for a regional conference: “Whoever thinks we’ll be the punching bag is wrong. The reality is different. If the agenda is right, and not just about Jerusalem and settlements, we can have a situation in which the Palestinians are not the spoiled child who never has enough toys. There can be a serious regional discourse.”
Edelstein expressed hope that such a conference could have a “positive agenda,” like one he promotes in international conferences of parliamentarians, on issues such as water, agriculture, technology and education.
At the executive level, matters like regional cooperation in fighting terror and stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions or a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could be discussed.
“It’s an intolerable situation when the Chinese parliament speaker talks to me all the time about Israeli drip irrigation and, at the same time, parliaments that are a spitting distance from Israel have no idea how our technology can help them,” he said. “We have to try to build peace from the bottom up... A building without strong foundations will collapse. Why not make life better for Algerians or Saudis?” Meanwhile, Edelstein plans to continue promoting his “positive agenda” at conferences around the world, and his calendar for the next year is full of visiting dignitaries, including a delegation of parliamentary speakers from Africa.
The speaker recounted that at a recent conference of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, his staff told him to stop inviting guests to the Knesset because he doesn’t have time to see them all.
“So many parliamentary speakers want to cooperate with the Knesset. Netanyahu took my joke – I always say it’s a good thing we’re isolated; otherwise, I wouldn’t have any time to get any work done in the Knesset. Every day, more and more foreign parliamentarians want to visit,” he said.