Stormy seas ahead of the Knesset winter session

With haredi enlistment, electoral reform and Beduin land claims in the Negev coming to a vote in the next few months, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein encourages MKs to act with decorum.

Yuli Edelstein 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yuli Edelstein 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Sometimes, a Knesset speaker is like the captain of a ship, working day and night to make sure the vessel stays on course in even the stormiest of weather. After a little more than six months on the job, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has already safely sailed through rough waters, but he expects the turbulence to continue in the Knesset’s winter session, which begins on Monday and continues until Passover.
“It’s going to be a very intense, rough session,” Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post on the phone Wednesday, during a trip to Italy in which he met Pope Francis and Italian government officials and parliamentarians.
“Between equality in the burden of national service, electoral reform and land in the Negev, there will be heated debates,” the speaker warned. “Intensive parliamentary work will begin right away.”
Of course there’s one more issue that’s expected to come to a head this year: Peace talks.
“Talks with the Palestinians didn’t reach the Knesset yet,” Edelstein explained, “but if there’s progress, that’s one kind of issue for us, and if there is not, it’s another kind of issue. Either way, there are ramifications for the Knesset.”

Your stance on peace talks and a two-state solution differ from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s stated position.
I won’t take advantage of my status to preach my opinions, but at the same time, my status doesn’t change my opinions, and I won’t hide them. It’s a matter of style in expressing opinions. I have almost 20 years of experience [in the Knesset] and these are serious questions.
Peace talks are only supposed to end in May. Why do you think the Knesset will have to deal with them in the winter session?
There may not be anything significant before Passover, but we also need to remember that there are intermediate stations. The next time terrorists are released, there will be more than a little controversy.
Lawmakers often like to deal with contentious issues through stunts, like the Arab MKs who ripped up copies of the Prawer Bill regulating Beduin land claims in the Negev. What will you do to try to preserve the Knesset’s dignity?
I talked to many MKs after that incident.
Only a handful of MKs cause disturbances; most behave well and are disturbed by those who don’t. People even came to me of their own initiative and asked what to do. I spoke to the MKs [who pulled stunts] and some apologized.
I hope that our discussion will be enough to prevent further incidents. If it isn’t, I will talk to the Knesset House Committee and ask it to give the Ethics Committee more authority to punish MKs so they stop dishonoring the Knesset.
Matters of religion and state brought some of the Knesset’s most intense debates in the last few months, and they’re likely to continue in the winter session. Do you think it’s possible for the Knesset to deal with serious matters in such heated tones?
The Knesset needs to discuss these matters.
I think we need changes in the relation between religion and state and in the rabbinate, but as a person who wears a kippa, I think they should be within the framework of Halacha.
At the same time, looking at the current atmosphere, I would suggest that everyone just calm down. The mood has become dangerous and will not allow change. We’ve seen processes in which more haredim enlist in the IDF and go to work, but now they’ve put up barricades.
Wanting reforms is different from trying to crush your rival. That kind of attitude does not respect the Knesset.
Speaking of hurting rivals, the opposition is up in arms about the electoral reform bill currently going through the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. What do you think of proposals to minimize or cancel weekly noconfidence motions, and the opposition’s claims that they’re undemocratic?
I think changes to no-confidence motions have to come through dialogue.
Even the opposition understands that in its current format, no-confidence is a farce. People who table the motions don’t even show up to vote or give speeches.
At the same time, we can’t cancel them.
Maybe they can be reduced to every two weeks or once a month, but we need to make sure to give the opposition a chance to express itself. To not have any no-confidence motions is to empty the Knesset of any content and make meaningless its job of supervising the government.
What about the proposal to double the electoral threshold?
I’m not excited about a dramatic rise in the electoral threshold. If we raise it by half a percent or 1%, we can live with that, but I think raising it to 4% will hurt the Knesset and democracy.
I also haven’t heard any proposals to stop parties from splitting up after the elections. In my opinion, [splitting parties] twists the will of the voter. It’s a fraud, an inappropriate trick, and if it’s still allowed, electoral reform won’t bring real change.
Last month, the High Court of Justice annuled an anti-migration bill passed by the Knesset. What do you think of judicial activism? What should the Knesset do now?
I don’t like that the court can annul laws. We need to think more about how to maintain the Knesset’s dignity and role.
However, I didn’t protest this particular decision. I don’t agree with it, but I think the judges have a case. The law contradicted a basic law.
With some minor adjustments, the anti-migration law will be constitutional. It is the Knesset’s immediate mission to pass a bill that the High Court can live with and give a response to the impossible situation for residents of south Tel Aviv, Eilat and other areas.
The Knesset is planning its largest ever delegation abroad to Auschwitz on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What are your expectations?
MKs have already called me and gave very positive, excited responses. I really hope it happens. We need to think a lot about ways to make it respectable, but also address current ramifications. We want a serious discussion with MPs from around the world.
That particular trip aside, Knesset delegations abroad get a bad rap, even though just this week, MKs Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua) and Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) managed to stop a motion by Palestinian lawmakers to boycott Israel and condemn settlements in the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva. Why do you think that is?
First of all, I want to say it’s great that MKs Sheetrit and Lavie were able to torpedo that motion. It’s unfortunate that the instead of wanting to talk about peace, the Palestinian delegation decided to boycott Israel.
I think the time has come for MKs to change their attitudes toward inter-parliamentary conferences. The issue is that when they go abroad, there are complaints in the press that they’re always traveling, and the MKs themselves don’t want to look bad. Plus, we recently had cases where faction leaders did not let MKs go.
[Opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) instituted a policy in which her MKs could not miss any votes on the budget earlier this year.] Also, I spoke to the head of the Italian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this week about the anti-circumcision motion, and he told me that not one Italian was for it.
Parliament-to-parliament communication is very important, and if we don’t have a presence, we can’t be surprised when negative decisions like boycotts and making circumcision illegal pass. When you talk to people, there’s potential for change. When you don’t, you get a slap in the face.

What if the delegations express opinions that differ from government policy?
This week you took a hard line on settlements in meetings with Italian parliamentarians and Foreign Minister Emma Bonino.
In many cases, MPs don’t really know what’s happening in Israel. They just repeat slogans like “settlements are an obstacle to peace.” They need to hear a different analysis. We’re a democracy; some people agree with me and some don’t.
[MPs from around the world] need to understand that.
There are legitimate questions that can be asked without making you an extremist on the Left or Right.