Yuli Edelstein, Likud's No. 2, speaks out

The Knesset speaker hopes for another term in his current position, but in the meantime, the big winner of the Likud primary is busy campaigning for his party.

EDELSTEIN AND Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive at the Yad Vashem ceremony marking 2018 Holocaust Remembrance Day. Coming in first in the Likud primary puts Edelstein in a prime position to take Netanyahu’s place as party leader one day. (photo credit: REUTERS)
EDELSTEIN AND Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive at the Yad Vashem ceremony marking 2018 Holocaust Remembrance Day. Coming in first in the Likud primary puts Edelstein in a prime position to take Netanyahu’s place as party leader one day.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein came in first place in the Likud primary, making him No. 2 on the party’s list for the next Knesset, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the victory didn’t really surprise anyone. He came in second place back in 2015.
Yuli Edelstein video
Coming in first in the Likud primary puts him in a prime position to take Netanyahu’s place as party leader one day, though the competition will likely be stiff, with interim Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, former minister Gideon Sa’ar and surely others eyeing the role. And then there are the persistent rumors that Edelstein hopes to run for president after Reuven Rivlin’s term ends.
The Knesset speaker would not give a direct answer about his own ambitions, saying only that he wants to continue for another term in his current job.
“It’s a long process,” Edelstein said of whether Netanyahu’s legal woes could mean he’ll leave office soon. “I don’t know if it’s a useful thing to discuss what happens next. We have a prime minister who’s the leader of the Likud, and we’re running in the elections with him.”
For now, Edelstein is focused on making sure the Likud wins on April 9.
But Edelstein pointed to two significant trends on the Likud list, and he fits in perfectly with both of them. The first is that the party rejected and demoted MKs known mainly for their shouting and bullying tactics, and the second is that they rewarded experience.
Edelstein is one of the Knesset’s veteran members, first winning a seat in 1996, less than a decade after he made aliyah upon being one of the last refuseniks released from the gulag, and in his nearly six years as Knesset speaker he has consistently called for parliamentarians to serve as a positive example for Israelis.
“These primary elections gave me hope,” Edelstein said from his Knesset office this week. “I think the message is quite clear.... It’s not just about [scandal-prone Likud MK Oren] Hazan, who was thrown out after all the gimmicks and misbehavior. It’s a clear messag and there is no other explanation for the fact that hardworking MKs moved forward.
“MKs to whom no one gave a chance found themselves in a better position than some of the winners of shouting matches,” he added. “This is a clear message that hardworking MKs will be promoted.... There’s a change of attitude among Israelis. They’re sick and tired of the shouting matches and gimmicks.”
Edelstein praised the new list, saying that at least the first 40 people would make good Knesset members, and even the first 20 would do a good job as ministers.
“This is the main difference between the Likud and other parties. We have an experienced team,” he said.
He also shrugged off talk about discord in the Likud’s ranks, especially in light of Netanyahu’s acrimony toward Sa’ar.
“Last time, when a 30-member strong faction was elected, everyone said that now Katz has his own faction within the Likud, and it’s big trouble for Netanyahu,” he recounted. “But the moment those people became MKs, they may have identified with Katz as party operators, but as MKs they had their own agenda and looked for their own ways to promote themselves and get to work.... It’s big talk, a lot of fuss, and that’s it.”
Asked about the Likud campaign’s focus on Netanyahu’s investigations, Edelstein made it clear that he would prefer that the Likud campaign focus on the records and accomplishments of its candidates.
YULI EDELSTEIN: Veteran MK and positive example for Israelis. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)YULI EDELSTEIN: Veteran MK and positive example for Israelis. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Based on parlor meetings and his travels around the country, Edelstein said: “I think people are very interested in what we have to offer, in terms of the price of housing for young couples and what we can do to help the elderly population in this country. I always talk about the positive things we’ve done with the disabled” in the Knesset, which has many physically and mentally disabled employees.
“These are challenges, beyond the usual big issues of security, international relations and so on,” Edelstein said, but called those challenges an advantage for the Likud, arguing that “no other party has anything close [to the Likud] to present to the voters in any of these areas, because of experience.
“The fact that some things have not been addressed yet shows we have to continue. I say, half-joking, that if everything were perfect, I could enjoy some coffee on the seashore and not run in an election,” he quipped.
EDELSTEIN ADDED an apparent dig at Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz: “It may seem dull, but there’s nothing like experience. There are no shortcuts. It seems strange to me that people imagine that, after they did something successfully, they think the next thing they can do is be prime minister, without having voted once in the Knesset or having any ministerial experience or ever reading a state budget.”
He also seemed baffled – or perhaps frustrated – by Gantz and his party’s ascendance in the polls.
“I’m kind of old-school. I think parties should have some kind of direction,” Edelstein joked.
“What are they bringing to the table that isn’t there?” he asked of Israel Resilience. “Instead of personal attacks on members of the Likud, that they voted like this or that, I would expect them to show what they stand for. They put out messages against the [Gaza] disengagement and sound right-wing, saying they want to keep all of Judea and Samaria... but negotiations with MK Orly Levy-Abecassis send a totally different message.
“When there’s a new party that’s just trying to bring everyone on board so there will be more seats, I’m not sure there’s a new message there,” he added, and mocked the party for releasing clarifications after many of its candidates’ statements.
Edelstein also said it is difficult being in a coalition with parties that don’t have a clear point of view.
“Five of them will vote like this, five like that, five we don’t know what they want. It’s impossible to run a coalition like that. I think they’re a nightmare coalition partner,” he said.
Gantz’s real message, Edelstein argued, is: “Anyone but the Likud or Netanyahu.”
Though Edelstein spoke to The Jerusalem Post 50 days before the election, he speculated that Netanyahu really does prefer a right-wing coalition if the Likud wins, and countered the idea that the prime minister will seek to form a more centrist government with Gantz, in light of the peace plan US President Donald Trump’s administration is expected to present in the coming months.
Edelstein said he’s not concerned about what that peace plan could bring.
“The Trump administration has proven they’re true friends, so I don’t think they’re secretly working on something that will damage Israel,” he said.
At the same time, Edelstein said Trump’s “deal of the century” is unlikely to come to fruition.
“Look at the reactions of the two sides,” he said. “Israel, without knowing any details, said OK, we’ll see what you have to offer and what is acceptable to us or not. The Palestinians immediately said there’s nothing to talk about.”
Edelstein quoted former foreign minister Abba Eban, who said Israel’s Arab neighbors “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
“I’m afraid this deal will turn into a theoretical discussion, because the Palestinians said it’s a nonstarter without knowing anything. It’s a nonstarter for them if we don’t go back to 1967 borders, divide Jerusalem and uproot communities in Judea and Samaria. I don’t know who would bring them a deal like that. Maybe the Iranians, but not a normal [mediator],” he said.
IN A way, Edelstein embodies one of the last big issues to truly unite the global Jewish community: the effort to free Soviet Jewry, and prisoners of Zion in particular. He has a photos from that era on the wall of his Knesset office, including one with other refuseniks, another showing his first visit to the Western Wall, and a picture with former US president Ronald Reagan features prominently among other world leaders he’s met.
For much of his political career, Edelstein focused on the Israel-Diaspora connection, including in his past cabinet positions as immigration and absorption minister and Diaspora and public diplomacy minister.
And as Knesset speaker, Edelstein said: “I personally, from day one, tried to make all the Diaspora leadership feel that the Knesset is their home. Even now, during the election campaign, I am meeting with Diaspora leaders.”
But beyond his personal efforts, Edelstein added that “we have to be quite frank; mistakes were made,” especially when it comes to egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall.
“The government’s unwillingness to proceed with the Kotel decision was a mistake, and I am saying, as an observant Jew, that it was an entirely political issue, not a halachic one or anything against Jewish tradition. Everyone wanted to bring a win to his or her [voters],” he said.
At the same time, Edelstein called it “counterproductive” for Diaspora leaders to focus on the fact that ultra-Orthodox political influence sometimes leads to decisions they disagree with.
“I always ask Diaspora leadership how they explain the fact that thousands of young students – the same ones we say are unaffiliated and distancing themselves from Israel because of the ‘occupation’ and Orthodoxy – come here on Birthright trips and, according to all the follow-up studies, change their attitudes toward Israel.... The more they learn about Israel and come to see it with their own eyes... the more they go back and become ambassadors for Israel,” Edelstein said.
In other words, the speaker argued, Diaspora leadership should not only be asking hard questions about Israel, they should be answering them.
“Are the rabbis and heads of Jewish organizations and education leadership in the Diaspora bringing enough attention to the centrality of Israel to their lives? I ask rabbis of different denominations: When you take the pulpit, do you make sure to mention the Land of Israel or the State of Israel?... Why don’t people in most communities speak Hebrew after all these years? Where is the Zionist education?” Edelstein asked.
Members of parliaments from around the world pose with Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein during the conference. (Yitzhak Harari)Members of parliaments from around the world pose with Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein during the conference. (Yitzhak Harari)
If relations are to improve, Israel has to make an effort, but so does the other side, he argued.
As for concerns that Israel has become a partisan issue in the US – with Republicans supporting Israel, and most US Jews voting Democrat – Edelstein said Israel needs to continue to make an effort to remain bipartisan.
“We should make sure to continue and develop new friendships in the Democratic Party without betraying our friends in the Republican Party,” he said.
The concern is mainly among newer Democratic members of Congress, and what will happen when a Democrat is elected president of the US, he said.
“We have wonderful friends among the veteran leadership, but among the younger generation and first-time representatives, I think, the situation is a little more problematic. That’s why we have to continue all the efforts and know that in every democracy, the wheel turns” and different people end up on top, he stated.
At the same time, Edelstein found that, in his experiences on official visits to Washington, it’s the American politicians who don’t really want to work together.
“It seems natural to me to invite a leading member of the opposition to come with me to meetings, but it’s less natural in Congress. Everyone was willing to meet me and talk about their love for Israel – but not together. So we have to be very serious in our approach there, to make sure we stay afloat on both sides,” he said.
Edelstein also said Israel must take a robust stance against antisemitism.
“When you look at the headlines from many European countries, it can seem like a flashback from 80 years ago. It’s a terrible feeling. But we should never forget that the situation is very different,” he said, since today there is the Jewish state, and also because “in most of these countries, the local leaders hate these headlines as much as we do.”
Israel should work with those countries, Edelstein said, but they should also understand that antisemitism is their problem to solve.
Antisemitism “is not about Jews. It’s about the spirit of their society. It’s a cancerous tumor in their society that will eat them from the inside if they don’t put an end to it,” Edelstein said. “It’s not that there’s a secret antisemitic society that attacks. The issue is often poverty, social protests, immigration... and then the outburst is antisemitic. They have to understand that if it’s not about the Jews, it’ll be something else.”