Interview: Yuli Edelstein
Yuli (Yoel) Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset, is still boyish looking at 55. Born in 1958 in Ukraine, then part of the former Soviet Union, he was a well-known underground Hebrew teacher, refusenik and, later, Prisoner of Zion. In 1987, two years after being released from a labor camp, he made aliya with his wife, Tanya. He was elected to the Knesset in 1996 and is a popular Likud–Yisrael Beitenu leader. Edelstein lives with his family in Neve Daniel, a settlement in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.
Q. Which is easier: solitary confinement in a cold Soviet prison or trying to keep order over 120 tumultuous members of the Knesset?
A. Ironically, in a Soviet prison cell, you are in charge of yourself. You are the only object. Today, I am in charge of the Knesset as a whole and enormously proud to serve as a key symbol of Israeli democracy. Every member feels, rightly so, that he or she is equal to each other…. You have to be very creative to keep order. I think by the end of my term we will have a body, I hope, with a few better manners and a bit more civility than when we started.
Q. How did you imagine your life in Israel would be?
A. When I first applied to leave the [Soviet Union], I was 21, I was into sports. I felt sure that a half a year later or so, I would come to Israel as a young, unmarried man, I would join the Army, perhaps the paratroopers. But in the course of time, I became a “refusenik” with trials, harassment, prison. The years passed. Later, I became absolutely sure I would go back to my professional training as a teacher.
In fact, when I first came to Israel I was certain I was going to devote my life to education and to my family. I recall one conversation with another ex-Prisoner of Zion, a very passionate person, who exhorted me, “Now in Israel we have to do this and we have to fight for that.” This was shortly after my arrival, and I clearly remember my answer: “Listen, I already paid my taxes to the Jewish people, now I plan to focus only on my family and job and that is it.” But as we say, “Man plans and God laughs.”
Q. You recently expressed an insight into the enormous pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under. How does that pressure influence his decision-making?
A. It’s not necessarily the narrow kind of pressure you might imagine. Sure, international leaders phone him and urge him to do this or that. But the true pressure is trying to keep the entire big picture in your mind, with all the dangers and the complexities and fragile relations. The dramatic challenge comes from simultaneously understanding and dealing with all of the circumstances and dangers. At the end of the day, such pressure can only be processed and acted on by the prime minister. Of course he consults with others nonstop. But the actual hardcore decision boils down to one person. Sometimes I agree with the decisions, sometimes I am critical. Yet I never, ever treat it lightly.
Q. As a close colleague of the prime minister, to what extent are your decisions based on your party ideals and to what extent are they based on your obligations to serve as a leader of his team?
A. The moment I was elected Knesset speaker, I accepted a different kind of authority—the speaker must be totally independent. On the other hand, I am where I am because of the support of my party, Likud-Beitenu, together with the support of the prime minister—I won an election. It is incumbent on me to take the side of the Knesset, not the executive branch, meaning the prime minister and his Cabinet. I have always perceived the Knesset as the most important institution for Israeli democracy. It’s part of my job to make sure the Knesset does things properly and oversees the government activities and legislates effectively. There is a built-in tension in this system, which is healthy and necessary.
Q. Do you think a two-state solution will and can emerge? Do you foresee as part of such a development another episode in which Jews might be uprooted from their homes?
A. People think the two-state idea is a simple yes or no proposition. It is anything but. It is extremely complicated. I told countless presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers that for me [the Palestinian situation] is not an emotional issue. I speak objectively as though we are discussing the people in Bolivia or Slovenia. Unfortunately, yes, we have been fighting each other, but it’s not a question of hating the Palestinians and feeling terrible about the fact that they might achieve a state of their own, a currency or march at the opening of the Olympics under their flag.
Q. What is it about?
A. It’s about facing reality. Right now to talk about a two-state solution is very irresponsible. It’s obvious that [Mahmoud] Abbas is not speaking in the name of the Gaza Strip, so we are already not talking about a two-state solution but minimally a three-state solution. I am absolutely convinced that at this stage the best compromise Israel can give does not meet the minimal compromise the Palestinians can offer. Let’s examine the issue of Jerusalem [by looking at Hebron]. We all know that Hebron is a very significant place for the Jews, an ancient Jewish city, the place of our patriarchs’ burial caves. And yet, with all that, Israel formally signed the Hebron Agreement [in 1997]. Jews live in Hebron and they are not, God forbid, going anywhere. No one is going to uproot the Jewish community there. In this sense, I want to come to a situation where the Palestinian leadership will be able to say, Jerusalem is very important to us, but we understand the reality. Jerusalem will be the capital of the State of Israel and not the capital of two states. We won’t be able to divide it and different peoples will live there.
Q. What about the fate of the Jewish settlements?
A. Right now the problem of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria is presented as a zero-sum game. When I ask well-meaning people, objective people, not Israel haters: “You tell me you favor a Palestinian state? Yes? Can the Jewish communities stay in the state?” “Mr. Edelstein,” they respond, “you are talking nonsense. They will all be massacred.” The moment a person says a thing like that to me, I am filled by doubts. Would anyone in their wildest imagination even speculate that Israel, under any conditions, would massacre a million Arabs who live inside Israel? This goes to the heart of the strange frame of reference here. If we want a two-state solution, we are talking about two states—one of them [Israel] has a Palestinian population; they are the minority but they are there. In the [Palestinian state] there is a Jewish population, they are the minority, but they are there. This is a definition of real peace!
Q. Do you hold any hope for the current peace talks?
A. I think it’s unrealistic to believe that within several months we can find a compromise on all the historic issues. I believe we might be able to or pressured to sign an agreement quickly. But what we need is an agreement to live with, not simply to be signed and displayed. The fate of any hasty or artificial agreement will be exactly the same as the Oslo Agreement and all kinds of other agreements that ultimately came to nothing.
Q. A million Jews left Russia for Israel. How should we react to the enormous number not living in Israel?
A. We are happy about every single Jew who comes to Israel. But let’s face the changed reality: Today, it’s not a situation of oppressed Jewish communities, people who were basically running for their lives. People can come freely, people can leave freely, people visit Israel many times before deciding to live here. As people still come, even if not in massive numbers, we should be very, very happy. I am not thrilled about the fact that there are still Jews scattered all over the world. I would definitely love to see all Jews here in Israel, but this is a hypothetical. In practice I understand that by issuing marching orders we won’t increase the numbers of olim. We have to be attractive enough, we have to be open enough and we have to build the kind of country that can…compete with other countries: Jewishly, economically, socially and in all the issues of human life and growth.