Analysis

In His Battle Against Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Had to Fold to Minimize His Losses

Yuli Edelstein had threatened to boycott Israel’s 70th anniversary Independence Day ceremony were Netanyahu to speak, but a 1998 video forced him to blink first and concede

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, January 12, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Assuming that the so-called “guidelines” agreed upon by the prime minister and the Knesset speaker over the Independence day ceremony are implemented, Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to brag once again using his favorite saying: “Ultimately, I get what I want.” In this case, he actually got almost everything he wanted. He’ll attend the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, he’ll march the length of the plaza, he’ll carry a torch and he’ll even give a speech.

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Yuli Edelstein, in contrast, will go to bed hungry for the next few nights, and especially the critical night, the night of the event. He blinked first, forsaking the initial pledge to boycott the ceremony was Netanyahu to speak. His main “achievement” was that Netanyahu’s speech won’t be too long, leaving him, as Knesset speaker, to deliver the main address on Mount Herzl for the ceremony that separates Memorial Day from Israel’s 70th Independence Day. Not very much, and will see if that actually happens. We won't know until we watch the ceremony having our stopwatch ready.

Edelstein’s capitulation – after having threatened that the entire Knesset would boycott the event, from the speaker to the Knesset guard, if the prime minister insisted on coming and delivering a speech – was intended to cut his losses. In fact, it was a few crucial days overdue. A week ago, the wind changed unfavorably for the Knesset speaker and in favor of Netayahu. Kan, the public broadcasting corporation, aired a video clip from the archives showing Netanyahu reading sections of the Declaration of Independence at the torch-lighting ceremony for the country’s 50th Independence Day. The precedent played really well into Netanyahu's game.

Netanyahu’s participation in the 1998 ceremony had been forgotten not only by then-Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon, but even by the prime minister. Apparently, Netanyahu didn’t even impress himself. But the moment it became clear that there was a precedent for the prime minister to participate in the torch-lighting ceremony, and that this precedent also occurred when the country was celebrating a round decade of independence, the rug was pulled out from under Edelstein’s main arguments: that Netanyahu's participation this year would be unheard of, that it undermined the nonpartisan nature of the event, that it violated tradition and protocol and so forth.

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That very evening, Edelstein should have put out an official statement taking a step back. Since it turns out there is a precedent, he should have said, I’m retracting my opposition and inviting the prime minister to appear at the ceremony, and it should be this way for every tenth year since independence.

But the Knesset speaker, who must have gone white watching the video, froze in his tracks. His associates said, “His position hasn’t changed.” Had he conceded, Netanyahu would have probably returned the tanks to their garages. But Edelstein stuck to his guns until he was forced to give up.

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The embrace Edelstein received from the left, which rushed to back his challenge to the prime minister, contributed to weakening his position. Edelstein enjoyed widespread support at the beginning of the saga both within the Likud, his party, and the public at large. Among his main backers was former head of the Shin Bet security service, Carmi Gillon, who called on viewers to turn off their televisions when the prime minister spoke.

The “compromise” shouldn’t be seen as a complete capitulation by Edelstein. But over the past two weeks, he had sworn to all his interlocutors, the people who encouraged and backed him, that he’d go all the way, no matter what it cost him. And many people believed him. He sounded resolute. But in the end, he had to fold.

Edelstein emerged as the loser on two fronts – among his voters, who questioned his insistence on not letting Netanyahu appear, and among the rival camp, which had pinned its hopes on him and was deeply disappointed (but it’s already used to that).