By Dovid Efune
The Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, vowed to put an end to a string of embarrassing incidents that recently greeted visiting world dignitaries at the Knesset, he told The Algemeiner in an interview during a visit to New York that ended Sunday.
“There’s no doubt that before the next visit I will try to take very serious measures in order not to have one single incident ever again in front of a foreign dignitary,” the parliamentary chief said.
Citing a newspaper report, Edelstein admitted he was “turning red” when catcalls and a walkout by Arab and ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members preceded an address by British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month. “I kind of respect my colleagues, and I would prefer seeing them behave like members of parliament,” he said, describing the behavior as “just unspeakable.”
In January, two Arab MKs heckled Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he spoke before Israel’s lawmakers, and a month later a speech from Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, also drew walkouts and heckles.
Edelstein compared the raucous behavior to a public argument between a husband and wife. “I guess in many families from time to time there is an exchange of harsh sentences between a husband and wife,” he said. “It happens, unfortunately, but I sincerely hope that in most cases it doesn’t happen in front of 30 guests that they invited to their house.”
In terms of what tools he specifically plans to use, Edelstein, who according to the Knesset’s website is responsible to represent it externally, preserve its dignity, the decorum of its sittings and the observance of its Rules of Procedure, said he would work within “the procedural code” of the Knesset to apply rules for the “special sessions” with foreign dignitaries.
The next major world leader to visit Israel will be Pope Francis I, who will arrive in May. Despite a personal invitation from Edelstein, the Pope’s itinerary for the visit released by the Vatican last week does not include an address to the Knesset.
In his role as Speaker so far, Edelstein has made a point of calling on major leaders to deliver remarks before Israel’s representative body, and when French President Hollande backpedaled on plans to speak there, Edelstein made an issue of it, canceling a plan to meet the President, according to reports.
Now Edelstein describes that incident as a “misunderstanding.”
“He took it as a sport,” the Speaker said. “He made a nice joke in the beginning of his speech about it… Probably someone misadvised him on what speaking to the Knesset means, but then he himself – President Hollande – described it as the highlight of his visit to Israel.”
Last year, when U.S. President Obama visited Israel, he chose to bypass the Knesset. He was condemned by Edelstein’s predecessor Reuven Rivlin, who described the decision as “worrying.”
“Three American presidents have spoken on the Knesset stage, as well as [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat and leaders from Europe,” Rivlin said at the time, according to The Jerusalem Post. “President Obama should speak to the people of Israel through its elected representatives.”
But Edelstein says that Obama wasn’t even invited as his visit coincided with a changing of the guard in Israeli politics.
“I can’t accuse President Obama, because his visit was being planned when there was no speaker,” he said. “There was no government and no speaker. If you recall, I was elected speaker two days before Obama landed in Israel. So basically there was no one to say to the American ambassador to Israel ‘we would like the president to address the Knesset.'”
However, even if he had been invited, Edelstein asserted that it is quite possible Obama would have declined.
“I don’t know what the outcome would have been, but definitely if I were the speaker I would have invited him,” he said. “I do have to say that during his visit… I said to him, ‘Mr. President, you owe me one, because now everyone asks how come you were not in the Knesset.'”
“If the president decides to come again,” he added, “I sincerely hope that it will be a stage that he will use.”
To begin with, an invitation to address the Knesset is not extended to very many visiting leaders.
“It’s a great honor to address the Knesset,” Edelstein said. “I have a list of dozens of dignitaries, heads of state, heads of parliament, prime ministers, who visit, meet in the Knesset, had a working meeting, met probably some friendship league or the leader of the opposition or whatever the case might be, and left without addressing a plenary session. It’s not that every head of state needs to get the honor to address a plenary session.”
In the meantime, it remains one of the Speaker’s priorities to make the Knesset the “central ground” for “foreign dignitaries to address the Israeli people.” His energy right now is directed towards ensuring that his efforts are not undermined, he said.
If visitors will unwittingly be drawn into shouting matches and domestic politics, “then I’m not sure that I have the heart… to approach the next visitor to Israel, the head of state, head of parliament, and tell him that the only ground to address the Israeli people is the Knesset. He will rightly ask whether he should expect, you know, some kind of ‘stone throwing’ during the session.”
In the meantime, there is still time for Pope Francis to reconsider.
“I think it’s a powerful message,” Edelstein said. “We all understand the Pope’s position. He doesn’t take sides or whatever, but in the Knesset, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Druze are all represented, and if the Pope comes with a message of co-existence and peace, it’s a very powerful message. And I think that if that happens that could be very significant, a very historic visit.”