The 'national explainer' explains

In a special holiday interview, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein defends his ministry and the ‘Masbirim’ campaign.

Yuli Edelstein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Yuli Edelstein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Some ministers might have been annoyed by the settlers’ campaign that sought to remind the public of the promises they made to support ending the 10-month construction moratorium in Judea and Samaria on time.
But Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein not only was not bothered by the campaign, he proudly keeps a copy of the advertisement with his picture and his promise to end the freeze on his desk at his Jerusalem office.
This should not be surprising for a former Likud rebel MK who as a resident of Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion is the party’s only minister who lives over the Green Line. Edelstein is also very close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, upon whom the settlers have already declared war.
Netanyahu arguably worked on behalf of Edelstein more than any other candidate for the Likud’s Knesset list and Edelstein returned the favor by working hard for Netanyahu in the key Russian immigrant and settler sectors that he represents and Netanyahu sought to attract.
The prime minister surprised Edelstein when he used the term West Bank rather than Judea and Samaria in his speech at the State Department launching the direct talks with the Palestinians. Edelstein recalled Netanyahu sounding different last year when the prime minister took him to Moscow to act as his interpreter in his meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
“When Netanyahu kept on referring to Judea and Samaria, Medvedev’s interpreter stopped him and told me ‘in our country we say West Bank,’” Edelstein recalled. “I said I am not just an interpreter but also a cabinet minister and I say Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu backed me up and said ‘Judea and Samaria, Judea and Samaria.’”
Edelstein expressed confidence that “Netanyahu said what he did in Washington because of the festive atmosphere but when push comes to shove in the negotiations, his own statements about our historic rights will be sounded loud and clear.”
He also strongly defended the government’s “Masbirim Yisrael” (Explaining Israel) promotional campaign, saying that “polls show a majority of Israelis support our efforts and want to be a part of them.”
In an interview in honor of the Succot holiday, Edelstein speaks wearing all three of his hats: Diaspora affairs, public diplomacy, and proud resident of Judea.
Do you know what the prime minister will do about the freeze?
I opposed the freeze not just because of the suffering of my neighbors but also because I understood that while it is easy to go into the freeze, it is harder to get out of it. I am sure the prime minister’s heart was in the right place when he made clear that the moratorium would end on time, but now the world is saying if there are negotiations, why are you not continuing the freeze?
It frustrates me to hear ministers saying [as Social Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog did] to continue it for just two more months and then we can build. The freeze is a test for future developments in the negotiations, because if we give in on this, why wouldn’t we on the Old City of Jerusalem?
Are the settlers’ tactics to stop the freeze effective?
I understand their behavior. They voted for this government. They are demanding that their elected officials live up to their promises. I sincerely hope most of my colleagues won’t just say construction will continue but will actually act, behave and vote accordingly.
Shouldn’t the settlers be putting pressure on Obama instead?
The last year showed that when the Israeli side says, “No, I can’t do that,” the American administration understands.
You have to be able to politely explain yourself. I don’t remember previous administrations applauding when we built in Judea and Samaria. But if we don’t have red lines, why not put pressure on us?
Would you resign if Netanyahu goes too far Left?
I don’t see a reason in the present situation when the prime minister is still in the right place. He just needs to be strengthened. My position is that of the Likud members, voters, and I would dare say a majority of the Israeli public. In my 15-year political career, I never betrayed ideas or people.
I am grateful to Netanyahu for his enormous support during the primary elections. I worked very hard, harder than many of my colleagues – at odd hours day and night – to make sure Netanyahu was prime minister, so it’s not about personal rifts. When I say the prime minister’s heart is in the right place, I am not saying this out of optimism but out of knowledge after many deep conversations with the prime minister.
How did you feel when Netanyahu said “West Bank?”
As someone close to him, I want to say that sometimes there are things that are very hurtful. When he says West Bank, it’s hurtful. I can’t suspect that he said it because his English is poor. I am sure he just said what he did in Washington because of the festive atmosphere and that when push comes to shove in the negotiations, his statements about our historic rights will be sounded loud and clear.
Do you like your job?
Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Public diplomacy is a challenging position. I was unwilling to be a minister without portfolio so this title came about. Israelis want all Diaspora Jews to be part of an international pro-Israel force but not all Diaspora Jews want to. Yet many Diaspora Jewish leaders did tell us they want more materials and help in working on our behalf.
Some people told me I would quit within three months after I saw that I would not be able to do anything because the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry and IDF Spokesman’s office, etc. will continue to be in charge of presenting the positions of the state. It has now been more than three months, and I am not quitting, because the ministry has found its own niches that are very important. For instance, we handle popular diplomacy.
How is the Masbirim campaign going?
We decided that the contra to all the billions of oil dollars currently working to delegitimize Israel around the world and make it a scapegoat for everything is the human resource of Israelis. There are Israelis traveling to hi-tech and medical conferences and young Israelis who tour the world after their army service.
If all these people would have in their mind and their hearts more facts and figures about Israel, it would be much harder for our enemies to demonize us. For much of the world, Israel is only about the conflict.
When I am abroad, I have to tell people that when I have a night out, I don’t take my wife out to fight the Palestinians, I take her out to the theater.
I am proud to say that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have visited the Masbirim Web site, spent time there and downloaded information.
Thousands of people have taken training courses of several hours. There has been a 91 percent satisfaction rate with the courses. For technical reasons, we haven’t been able to turn to private travelers yet, only organized groups, but we hope to in the future.
The English version of the Web site went online the day after Rosh Hashana, as a good start for the Jewish year, and it will be advertised in The Jerusalem Post and IBA News.
The campaign was intended initially for Hebrew-speaking Israelis but there were demands in The Jerusalem Post and Russian-language newspapers for it to expand to other languages, so we did. We have also distributed 50,000 pocketbooks at the airport with key facts about Israel.
What did you think of the way the campaign was made fun of by the satire shows, which portrayed Ehud Barak taking out the pocketbook and telling Barack Obama that Israelis do not ride camels?
The fact that it was hit by all the satire shows is a sign of its success. Ha’aretz wrote, “Who made a Bolshevik the propaganda minister?”
Another Web site complained that [Jewish Agency chairman Natan] Sharansky and Edelstein from the Soviet Union are the ones in charge of dealing with the Diaspora. But polls show a majority of Israelis support our efforts and want to be a part of them. There is a lot of misunderstanding about hasbara, which is a lot of different things that are all important. It’s like soccer. Everyone thinks they know everything.
How can we win the battle for Israel’s legitimacy?
The issue of boycotting Israel should bother us. We have to change the atmosphere that makes it so easy to boycott us and the perception that we are – as the French ambassador to the UK infamously called us in 2001 – “that shitty little country” that causes so many problems.
Most people around the world don’t understand that Israel is relevant to them. Many Christians around the world don’t identify Israel with the Holy Land. In London, when I was asked about boycotting Israel, I said I am in favor, but do it seriously. Don’t just stop eating cherry tomatoes, close your laptop computer, call the hospital and ask them to stop treating your relatives with Israeli medicine and medical equipment. It is so easy to boycott Israel when you don’t know what you are talking about. We have to spread information about how relevant Israel is to the world. Saying that the problem is just our policies and that changing them would make the world love us is an interesting theory but it has never worked. It only has made us popular for a couple weeks.
Camp David and the unilateral withdrawal proved this. When I was in Boston and I spoke about how the withdrawal only helped for three weeks, a woman in charge of public relations for Israel there laughed and told me “those three weeks were so wonderful but so short.”
Are the international efforts against Israel anti-Semitism?
When I say demonizing Israel has anti-Semitic roots, some people get a tired look on their face and say, “Not again, can’t you guys take any criticism?”
But I will say loud and clear that this delegitimation has anti-Semitic roots. You can’t work in journalism in a mainstream country if you are anti-Semitic, but you certainly can if you are anti- Israel. As Martin Luther-King Jr. told an anti-Israel friend, “If you are anti-Israel, it means you are against the Jews.”
The attacks on many Jewish communities around the world are inspired by an anti-Semitic atmosphere. The story about the Israeli rescue team harvesting organs is part of that. In most prominent Western countries, anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. During the last 20 years since monitoring began, 2009 was the worst year statistically for anti-Semitic incidents.
Do you think all American Jews should make aliya?
When I was absorption minister, the Jewish Agency emissaries got upset with me for not telling people to come to Israel. For me, coming to Israel was the best decision I made. Many people who have moved here say that. But it’s always an individual decision and I don’t want to interfere. Nefesh B’Nefesh is doing a great job personally assisting people. There is an increase in American aliya. It makes me happy that people who are not being persecuted come here to give it a serious try.
What did you think about the muchmaligned Peter Beinhart article about the decreasing attachment of young American Jews to Israel?
I disagree with his basic assumptions. He provided symptoms about young American Jews distancing themselves from Israel, but he didn’t analyze the problem correctly. The peak of Diaspora support for Israel was in 1967 after a violent military victory, so it can’t be correct that if Israel was at peace and Israel was not perceived as a military power that everything would be wonderful.
At the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, we are working to ensure the centrality of Israel for the next generation. Other generations had buzzwords that affiliated them to Israel that don’t apply anymore. Instead of hearing about Sharansky and Edelstein on their college campuses, they heard about soldiers killing Palestinian babies. They didn’t hear about the Six Day War miraculously uniting Jerusalem. They heard about occupation. It’s important to inform them.
That’s why programs like Birthright are so important. The fact that Birthright will receive more government support is in part because of our ministry. We are working with graduates of Birthright and Masa. When I come to the US, instead of delivering lectures, I make a point of having honest discussions with groups of young people and I am impressed by them.
What else is the ministry doing?
Many Diaspora communities abroad feel neglected so we have been doing video-conferences with small Jewish communities around the world. I was recently in Latin America. I visited five countries in 11 days. It showed the Jewish communities there that we mean it when we say that every Diaspora community is important and they have an address to talk to.
I also have to keep in mind that I do not only represent Israel to Diaspora Jews, I also represent the Diaspora to Israelis. Diaspora issues are not prominent here. We are doing what we can to change that. For instance, we are doing a festival of families at the Diaspora Museum that will focus on what Israeli families have in common with their counterparts in the Diaspora. This is part of an attempt to get Israelis to get acquainted with Diaspora Jews.
Can a solution be found on the conversion issue?
In my role of defending Diaspora Jews in the government, I constantly raised that issue before it became such a crisis. Combined with efforts of the federations, it worked and the legislation was delayed.
The ministers realized that cutting knots with a sword, as Alexander the Great did, is not the way to solve such controversial issues.
There are chances to reach a compromise that would have to be very political and very technical. It’s good that it is political and technical, because if the issue was a matter of Jewish law, we wouldn’t be able to find a compromise. It’s good that the legislation is being amended.
I will bring specific proposals to the committee that is working on reaching a compromise, in an effort to enable Russian immigrants and other potential converts to have more possibilities for Orthodox conversions without antagonizing and excluding non- Orthodox Jews.