More than 30 years ago, Yuli Edelstein, the Soviet born Prisoner of Zion was a unifying factor not only in Israel but throughout much of the Jewish World.
Today, he is the eye in the storm of divisiveness.
Few things in the second half of the 20th century united Jews more than the global call to the Soviet authorities to Let My People Go.
Within the Soviet Union itself, there were Jewish freedom fighters who did not wear uniforms, who did not carry guns, nor resort to violence or throwing explosives, but whose weapons of resistance were the promotion of Jewish identity, the dissemination of Jewish tradition and literature and the teaching of the Hebrew language.
Edelstein was one of those freedom fighters who was initially a refusenik and then a Prisoner of Zion, convicted on trumped up charges of possessing narcotics.
But the true charge, which no one in the west would regard as a crime, was reading Leon Uris, advocating Zionism and teaching Hebrew.
Considering his background, these so-called crimes were quite unusual. Though halachically Jewish himself, and even religiously observant for more years of his life than he was totally secular, Edelstein is the son of Christian parents. His mother was born Jewish and his father was the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Edelstein's parents converted to Christianity, and his father even became a Russian Orthodox priest. Both of Edelstein's parents were university lecturers and seldom at home, so Edelstein was raised by his Jewish grandparents.
Under the influence of his grandfather, who used to listen to the Voice of Israel Radio and who taught himself Hebrew at age 70, Edelstein developed an interest in his heritage. After his grandfather died, Edelstein became even more enamored with and immersed in things Jewish. A natural polyglot, he picked up Hebrew quickly, and speaks it with no trace of a Russian accent. Similarly, he speaks fluent English, also without any sign of a Russian accent. This is also a credit to the Moscow Institute for Teacher Training where he studied languages.
EDELSTEIN WAS in prison for three years and was released in May 1987, on the eve of Israel Independence Day. He arrived in Israel in the same year, 10 years after he had first applied to emigrate.
No less an activist in Israel than he had been in Moscow and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, within a year he was vice president of the Zionist Forum, a position that he held for eight years.
During this period, he also studied at the Jerusalem Fellows Program, and from 1990-93, he headed a department at the Melitz Center for Zionist Education.
His political career in Israel began with membership in the National Religious Party, which was not surprising considering that he had chosen to live in Alon Shvut in the West Bank.
The affiliation with the NRP did not last very long and in 1993, Edelstein became an advisor to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the latter was the leader of the opposition.
Inasmuch as Jews from the Soviet Union were arriving in Israel in large numbers in the 1990s, they were having a very tough time in the country and they needed people who understood both their language and their mentality to pave a path for them in the Israeli system.
Both Natan Sharansky and Edelstein understood this, and having acclimatized faster than most other immigrants from the former Soviet Union, they formed the Yisrael ba'Aliya party in 1996 and in that same year were elected to the Knesset. Their party joined the Netanyahu led government, and Edelstein was appointed Minister for Immigrant Absorption.
In later years he served as Deputy Minister for Immigrant Absorption, and Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs
He was elected Speaker of the Knesset in March 2013, and continued in that position in an interim capacity following both the elections for the 22nd and 23rd Knessets, despite the fact that the Law states that: "The Speaker shall be elected no later than the date on which the Knesset convened for the purpose of establishing the Government, as stated in article 13 of Basic Law: the Government. Should the elections of the Knesset Speaker be scheduled for the same date set for the sitting for the purpose of establishing the Government, the Speaker shall be elected first."
Edelstein, who considers himself to be a law-abiding citizen, has not followed the law on this matter, and has remained glued to his seat.
His claim is that this is because he wants to give Likud and Blue and White more leeway with which to overcome their differences and form an emergency national unity government.
But the Blue and White party, which wants to replace Edelstein with Meir Cohen, says that this is not the purview of the Speaker. The role of the Knesset is one of oversight to ensure that the government continues to observe the rule of law and uphold democracy. What Edelstein is doing, the majority of MKs charge, is working in the interests of the interim government. When Edelstein still refused to budge, and the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, where five justices including Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, ordered Edelstein to hold the election, he remained defiant and refused – albeit politely.
While agreeing to hold the elections soon, without specifying the date, he also made it clear he would not take orders from Hayut, and was supported in his refusal by several right-wing politicians.
Many Israeli legal professionals were aghast and declared that what Edelstein was doing posed a severe threat to Israel's democracy.
Former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch said that if Edelstein had given a date for the election of a new Speaker, the Supreme Court would in all probability have accommodated him and the current controversy could have been avoided.
The man who was once such a unifying factor, is now a source of political chaos. The stance that he has adopted may cost him dearly. Some pundits say that he is acting on orders from Netanyahu. Others say that he genuinely believes that given more time, there will be a national unity government. Others, mindful that neither Netanyahu nor Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had succeeded in their previous efforts to form a government, think that they will be unlikely to do so now, and Israel will go to a fourth round of elections.
There are also those who remember the days when the first session of a new Knesset was presided over by the most veteran MK, who is currently Labor chairman Amir Peretz. This custom was abolished a few years ago. If it was still in force, the problem with Edelstein would not exist, and he would still have a very good chance of being elected as the 11th president of Israel and would be taking up this role in July 2021, when Reuven Rivlin's term expires. The election is held by members of the Knesset, so it now appears that Edelstein can kiss that ambition goodbye.
But then again, he may end up as leader of Likud when Netanyahu leaves office.