Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
(photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Among the daily scheduling changes regarding US President Donald Trump’s brief visit to Israel this week, one event that seems to remain fixed is his sole address to the Israeli people, from a podium at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, instead of a more dramatic venue such as Masada or the Knesset.
As more than 50 presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary speakers have addressed the Knesset since 1966 – including US presidents Carter, Clinton and George W.
Bush – this apparent snub by the Trump administration stands out in glaring contrast with the announcement by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of his upcoming address before Russia’s parliament.
For one of the former USSR’s most famous former refusenik prisoners to address Russia’s parliament 30 years after his release from the Siberian gulag is nothing less than another Russian Revolution vis-a-vis world Jewry.
This is a world where the infamous czarist forgery known as The Elders of Zion is still a best seller in its Arabic translation after a century of antisemitism. It is also where Russia is daily becoming more involved in Syria’s civil war on the side of an Iran bent on Israel’s annihilation.
Former Prisoner of Zion Edelstein’s address to the Federation Council in Moscow next month is not merely a welcome gesture to Israel by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also signals a challenge to his American counterpart on the eve of his visit to Israel.
“This is a special trip and there is great excitement about it,” Edelstein said on Monday. “We can’t ignore the symbolism of something that could have been considered a mirage not that many years ago, that someone who was a prisoner in the Soviet Union will stand on the stage of the parliament in Moscow and give a speech as the speaker of the Knesset of Israel.”
After being denied permission to leave the Soviet Union for Israel in 1977, Edelstein clandestinely taught Hebrew, for which he was arrested on trumped-up drug charges in 1984 and spent nearly three years at hard labor in Siberian prison camps before he was released in 1987.
Edelstein plans a nostalgic visit to sites in Moscow where he was tried and imprisoned, but also a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for an exchange of views on Russia’s increasing influence in the Middle East.
While in the past Edelstein criticized VIP visitors who declined to address the Knesset, this time he is silent as Trump prepares to address the nation from the Israel Museum, and not across the street at Israel’s legislature.
Edelstein’s office released an unconvincing attempt at a face-saving explanation: “The president’s visit to Israel is considered a work visit and not an official visit. As such, it does not require a visit to the Knesset.”
Such a statement stands out following Edelstein’s own previous complaints about Knesset members’ behavior in the plenum – when they bother to show up. He recently told The Jerusalem Post’s Knesset reporter, Lahav Harkov, that he had actually asked several world leaders to avoid a Knesset visit due to MKs’ low attendance at such events and their rude behavior.
MK Sharren Haskel (Likud) said the Knesset plenum’s notorious lack of decorum might argue in favor of discouraging visits by dignitaries, particularly one as sensitive to criticism as the US president. “We should prevent MKs from interrupting during a speech – especially when it is delivered by a foreign leader,” she said.
MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) claimed that interrupting speakers is a customary way to protest controversial views, even on special occasions. “We are in a parliament, not in a cathedral,” he said. “Every plenum event is a parliamentarian event and every interruption is a legitimate protest tool, even if it is to a speech of a president or a foreign leader.”
Numerous prime ministers and more than two dozen presidents have addressed the Knesset. Edelstein expressed the parliament’s disappointment in 2013, when Barack Obama chose to speak to university students instead.
In his unprecedented address next month to Russia’s legislature, Edelstein will be celebrating his personal freedom from the Soviet camps while deepening Israel’s strategic relationship with its successors. This is an important step that coupled with Trump’s visit to Israel shows just how far the Jewish state has come in the 30 years since Edelstein was released from the gulag.