The speaker of the Knesset has vowed to “tell Israel’s truth” when he appears at an event in the Parliament next week, amid a growing controversy about his visit to the UK.
Yuli Edelstein, an unabashed hard-liner from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, is due to speak in the Palace of Westminster on 2 March at the invitation of House of Commons speaker John Bercow.
Palestinian groups have condemned the invitation, pointing out that Mr Edelstein lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank whose very existence contravenes international law. Palestinian envoy to Britain Manuel Hassassian told The Independent on 22 February that he was “incredulous that Mr Edelstein is being given a platform in Parliament itself - the self same Parliament that only a short time ago voted to recognise the Palestinians’ right to self determination.”
But in a Facebook post Mr Edelstein was defiant, accusing critics of “chasing after populistic headlines at Israel’s expense in order to curry favor with extremist elements” and pointing out that no foreign guest in the Knesset has ever made an issue of where he lives.
Mr Edelstein’s home in the Neve Daniel settlement west of Bethlehem is not controversial in Israel itself, where living in the West Bank has become more mainstream over the years and roughly ten percent of the population now lives in the settlements viewed by the international community as violating the Fourth Geneva Convention.
More controversial — at least with liberal politicians — are Mr Edelstein’s stances as Knesset speaker. He is currently supporting two key initiatives seen as “anti-democratic” by critics. One is a bill demanding that NGOs that receive foreign government funding prominently declare themselves as such in all correspondence and advertising. In practice, the step will only apply to left-wing NGOs.
Mr Edelstein also says he supports giving the Knesset the power to suspend a sitting member of parliament for supporting terrorism or racist incitement after a vote of ninety of its 120 members. There are fears that such powers will be abused to silence Arab MPs and will contravene the right of the electorate to choose its representatives.
“Unfortunately in most cases Yuli Edelstein toes the government line and takes a stance that is more on the side of the government than on that of the legislative authority,” says Esawi Freij, an MP from the liberal Meretz opposition party. “Our situation requires that the speaker stand up on his legs and defend the Knesset members.”
Mr Edelstein opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, moving for several months to the Gedid settlement there to protest then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s plans. More recently he has voiced support for settlers’ efforts to expand their presence in the heart of the West Bank flashpoint city of Hebron.
Religiously observant, Mr Edelstein attaches the epithet ‘’May God avenge their blood’’ when referring on his Facebook page to victims of Arab attacks.