Israel’s Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora believes the Kadima Party has no right to exist, thinks Israel should have taken the deal offered for Gilad Shalit, and is happy to have the public relations problems Israel faces today.
These are just three of the topics Yuli Edelstein took up at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange on Jan. 31.
Speaking before a receptive crowd of about 85, the former Soviet refusenik turned Likud stalwart pointed out that from a historical perspective, concerns over Israel’s public image, or hasbara, pale next to its accomplishments.
“Baruch Hashem that we have this problem,” he said. “Because 70 years ago we didn’t have such problems. We were such ultimate victims that we didn’t have any hasbara problems at all.” He continued: “Now, thank God, we have a state, we have an army, the soldiers are fully equipped, they are sitting on tanks, wearing bulletproof vests, they have state-of-the-art weapons.”
Nevertheless, he invited his audience to work through social media and everyday conversations to broaden conceptions about Israel to the wider American public, beyond a focus on war and terrorism.
Born in Chernovitz, Ukraine, in 1958, Edelstein was an aliya activist in Moscow. He was sent to the gulag and was among the last to obtain a visa to leave. He immigrated to Israel in 1987, and was a founding member of Yisrael BaAliyah, a Russian immigrants’ party that ultimately merged with the hawkish Likud. Edelstein has served in the Knesset since 1996.
Although he focused his brief comments on hasbara, he did not hesitate to share sharp opinions during a long and free-ranging question-and-answer session. Topics included Iran (sanctions are better than the military options), Turkey (a much more complicated country than it once was, and now less friendly toward Jews), and censorship of independent Israeli filmmakers (Edelstein favors free speech but not necessarily offering government subsidies to filmmakers who send negative messages about Israel).
When Tzipi Livni’s opposition Kadima Party came up, Edelstein offered a biting one-liner. “I am the last of the Mohicans, when it comes to clean politics. The way Kadima was created does not give it much right to exist,” he said.
Kadima was founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon after a disagreement with Likud over disengaging from Gaza. Critics called its formation abrupt, Sharon’s then leadership a defection, and forecast its immediate demise. It represents members of the Likud and Labor parties who favored an assertive peace process, but its centrist appeal waned with the ascension of Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud as prime minister.
Edelstein was disappointed over the collapse of negotiations that would have seen a return of Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza since in June 2006, in exchange for some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. (A Hamas official told the BBC Tuesday that the process has “failed.”) “I would have taken the [most recent] deal with some slight improvements,” said Edelstein. “I’m not sure it will get any better.”
Edelstein welcomed the news that the Shas Party would become the first fervently Orthodox party to join the World Zionist Organization, founded by Theodor Herzl as a secular governing body for Israel. “I don’t think Shas will be dancing the hora tomorrow with Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox [Jews] in the streets of Jerusalem, but I’m very hopeful,” he said.