Edited by Rachel Gould, Ph.D candidate in Public Policy at Tel Aviv University
Just days before the election that may usher in the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 10-year term, the longest in Israeli history, as Prime Minister of Israel, Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset, sits in his office as one of only three Knesset members still working. Edelstein who is second in command under Netanyahu, spoke to journalist on tour in Israel, stating this election is attracting more attention because it’s a tight race.
“We said you can’t form a party just based on going against Netanyahu, but it was a very responsible and politically smart move for the center left to make one new party out of two existing parties,” says Edelstein referring to the Blue and White Party
Edelstein who was born in the Soviet Union and was a prisoner of Zion in Moscow, says he is proud to be the Speaker of the Knesset “because of the fact the Knesset defined the Democratic State of Israel.” As the 70-year old country changes, the policymakers struggle to define what a Jewish state actually means says political analyst Neil Lazarus, a renowned expert on Israel and the Middle East.
“The elections are slightly different,” Lazarus says. “What does it mean to be a Jewish state and a Jewish democracy and how do you combine the two….that’s the conversation.”
In Israel there is a Declaration of Independence, but no constitution and Lazarus says one side of the argument is “Why do you need a constitution when you have the Torah?” Israel remains divided on the issue. As the ever growing right maintains power under Netanyahu’s Likud Party, a new voice is demanding to be heard led by Benny Gantz says Lazarus.
“One of the biggest changes is the creation of the Blue and White Party,” says Lazarus. “They are quite serious contenders against Netanyahu.”
But Lazarus says the elephant in the room is the Palestinian conflict leaving many with the question should Israel give up land to the Palestinians. According to Lazarus, many are predicting that after the April 9th election, the United States is going to pressure Israel to cut a deal with the Palestinians, one reason for a recent spike in violence from the Gaza Strip. Lazarus says former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley alluded to the fact that the U.S. is going to cut a deal with the Palestinians and Israel, and both sides will pay a price.
Attaining peace is a much higher priority now that Russia is positioned as the new superpower of the Middle East, along with the threat of Iran-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah has the capabilities to launch 1,000 rockets a day and is upgrading them with the help of Russia. Hezbollah has replaced Hamas as the biggest regional threat. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the reduction of aid to the Palestinian Authority has exacerbated the situation. As a result, Lazarus says the Palestinians don’t really want to negotiate with the Trump administration.
Edelstein is more in favor of “building peace.” An idea that is powered by an awareness of shared resources as the driving force behind the peace process. Edelstein says if Israel continues what it has done the last 25 years Golda Meir’s prediction of never finding peace will be proved right.
“The leadership in this country promised to Israel if we shook hands, appeased and gave up some things we’ll get peace. What we got was the intifada and terrorist attacks,” he says referring to the Oslo Accords. “You don’t have to be biased to know this won’t work.”
Edelstein is in favor of a platform of cooperation emphasizing water, resources and the environment, unlike cooperation based on economics like Shimon Peres, a strategy Edelstein describes as a continuation of the same story. Instead, Edelstein wants to “do something different for a change” with a wide platform.
”There are issues waiting for us like environment and water resources. We can pretend not to play with them and in the meantime we pollute the one and only water resources and aquifer for us and the Palestinians. Water has no idea where the green line is. A bird flying from the Gaza Strip to Ashkelon doesn’t have the first idea it crosses the greenline and carries bird flu. If we don’t start cooperating on that we’re not making any progress and we’re making the situation worse,” Edelstein says “After that, there is the economy, Israeli technology, startups and medical equipment. When I travel to China I can’t pass a person that doesn’t say ‘Israeli drip irrigation’ yet 100 kilometers from here no one is using this technology….it’s absurd!”
Israel’s resources include the headwaters of the Jordan river in Syria, water sources flowing from the West Bank into Israel and on to Gaza that are heavily polluted and the coastal aquifer around Haifa which is almost tapped out and is no longer a reliable drinking-water source. The desalination plants are energy dependent. Each plant must have a power plant next to it, which means carbon production is projected to increase. Edelstein wants to work on the environmental issues involving the Palestinians as neighbors who share the same burdens.
“Let’s forget the big ideas and focus on the fact the Jews are not disappearing and Arabs are not disappearing and start from there,” Edelstein says.