The biggest names in the new Blue and White super-bloc formed Thursday to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the April 9 election are obviously Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.
But the much lesser known Yoaz Hendel could be the key to the bloc’s success, because he is arguably the most right-wing candidate on the list, which must attract support from the Center-Right to have any chance of defeating Netanyahu.
Hendel was part of the team that negotiated a new joint platform for the slate overnight at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post near his home in the southwestern Jerusalem suburb of Ness Harim, Hendel said there were no major differences between the parties on key policies and principles.
“The alternative created by the merger brings new Zionist hope for Israel to return to itself,” Hendel said.
A native of Elkana in Samaria, Hendel has been the leading voice of the Right in the left-leaning newspaper Yediot Aharonot and was recruited by Netanyahu in 2011 to serve as his director of communications and public diplomacy.
“I am for managing the conflict, not being managed by it, by the Palestinians or the Americans,” he said. “I am not in favor or relinquishing territory. If the Messiah comes and the Palestinians become Swedes, I’ll talk about everything.”
Hendel talks about “conservatively managing the dangers facing Israel” and insists that when it comes to that, there is no major difference between Netanyahu, with whom he worked then, and Gantz and Ya’alon, with whom he works now. He said they all agree that unilaterally evacuating territory is dangerous.
“The current government talks Right but doesn’t do Right,” he said. “There is a lot of rhetoric, but they did not annex a single centimeter of land, even in a consensus place like Gush Etzion. The Trump plan that is about to be introduced is the result of us not saying anything. My conclusion from heading our public diplomacy is that it’s tough to explain our policies if we don’t stand for anything.”
Hendel, 43, is a married father of four, whose wife is from a home of immigrants to Israel from Brooklyn and Teaneck, NJ. He considers himself “sometimes religious.” He keeps Shabbat but does not wear a kippa during the week and does not want to be part of a particular sector.
He served in the Shayetet 13 naval commando unit as a company commander. In the IDF reserves, he commands a special unit.
Following his IDF service, Hendel did what he calls “operational things in the security system.” After earning a doctorate in Israel’s military history, he worked for the Institute for National Strategic Studies and Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and coauthored Israel vs Iran: The Shadow War along with Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz.
When Netanyahu gave him the job, he enjoyed having influence over the state’s future. He was sent along with Yitzhak Molcho to represent Israel at the January 2012 Quartet talks in Amman.
But in the 10 months working there, he saw the alleged corruption and did not feel comfortable around it. When Netanyahu did not fire his chief of staff Natan Eshel after he and cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser told him that Eshel was sexually harassing a co-worker, he quit along with Hauser, who is now on the same list for the Knesset.
“I decided on principle that if he doesn’t want me, I respect it, but I can’t work there anymore,” Hendel said. “I didn’t leave in anger, and I never worked against him.”
But over the past four years, Hendel saw Netanyahu’s behavior change and overstep norms. This made him determined to enter politics and bring about the defeat of his former boss.
“There are no more balances between personal and national needs,” he said. “I still respect Netanyahu’s impressive abilities and knowledge. He has great abilities to be a good prime minister, but his weaknesses overcame his abilities and made him a prime minister who is no longer good.”
Hendel cited Netanyahu’s attacks on his political opponents, most of whom he paints as leftists, which has become a slur.
“He cannot say he is the prime minister of everyone anymore,” Hendel lamented. “My friends in the [Shayetet] who are on the Left are willing to sacrifice their lives for the state, yet they are being called traitors. Right or Left is now defined as for or against Bibi, and I can’t accept that. It’s dangerous, because it puts holes in the boat that we’re all in.”
Hendel said Netanyahu’s criticism of the IDF, police and State Prosecution can make 18-year-olds question why they should serve in the army, respect police and not cheat on taxes, if those institutions are controlled by “them.”
“There are redlines that cannot be crossed, and Netanyahu crossed them, so he cannot be an effective prime minister,” Hendel said. “After many years in power with people only telling you what you want to hear, it’s hard to separate between you and the state.”
In December 2017, Hendel organized a right-wing anticorruption rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, in which the main speaker was Ya’alon, which was not particularly well attended. He helped Ya’alon build his Telem Party, which did not gain much support.
“Bogie is the leader whose views I most identify with, and I see him as a responsible leader with tremendous abilities,” Hendel said. “I felt bad he couldn’t sweep others off their feet. Right-wing and statesmanlike is apparently a rare breed. I wanted to have someone to vote for, after the Likud stooped to the level of people like David Bitan and Miri Regev.”
To that end, Hendel planned the joint list of Gantz and Ya’alon at the back of his synagogue, where he sits with his neighbor Chili Tropper, an aide and now Knesset candidate of Gantz.
Hendel endorsed the decision of the party’s leaders to rule out sitting in a government led by Netanyahu after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit indicts him pending a hearing, which is expected to take place as early as next week.
“After Netanyahu said Olmert cannot govern while facing charges, it is hypocritical to say Netanyahu can,” Hendel said. “A prime minister cannot be in court until 6 p.m. and then declare war at night, no matter how skilled he is. Sitting under a prime minister under indictment is wrong.”
Hendel defended Gantz’s decision to retaliate for Netanyahu’s negative campaigning by criticizing him personally in a controversial speech on Tuesday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
“When I lay in muddy foxholes with my soldiers on frozen winter nights, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, left Israel to improve your English and practice it at luxurious cocktail parties,” Gantz said. “On the days when I commanded the Shaldag combat unit in life-threatening operations on enemy soil, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, worked your way bravely and determinedly between makeup sessions in television studios. While I trained generations of commanders and fighters, you took acting lessons in a New York studio.”
Hendel said Gantz had to respond to Gantz being called a traitor by the Likud, the attacks on Gantz’s military background and false accusations against his wife.
“Suddenly they see negative campaigning has an impact, and we hope they stop theirs now,” he said. “There are different ways of dealing with fake news. Netanyahu has many assets, but telling the truth is not one of them. He delegitimizes every opponent, and we can’t accept it. I am not among those who say be Christian and turn the other cheek.”