'Right-wing people who respect the state' are how Zionist Spirit will win - Hendel

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Yoaz Hendel explains how the Zionist Spirit will cross the electoral threshold.

 YOAZ HENDEL: There is no unity government without the Likud. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YOAZ HENDEL: There is no unity government without the Likud. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

The way into Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel’s large office is a maze. One enters the Israel Postal Company building opposite the Jerusalem Municipality building in Safra Square, passes through security and a nondescript doorway, up two flights of stairs and then crisscrosses a number of hallways.

The maze somewhat reflects Hendel’s political career. He began in Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem, joined Blue and White, dropped out and became Derech Eretz, joined New Hope, left it as well, and finally joined what remained of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina Party, forming a new party, Zionist Spirit.

For Hendel, though, the platform isn’t what matters.

“I am a practical politician. I learn lessons. And what I do with these lessons, I come and present them to the public and tell them to vote for me, based on what I have done, my activity in the Ministry of Communications, based on my work plans and my political goals,” Hendel said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

One of these lessons is that narrow governments of 61 seats that depend on the “extremist” parties do not last.

 Ministers gather for a Knesset cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Ministers gather for a Knesset cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“In my eyes, a narrow right-wing government is a fiction. I think it can’t last, and the record shows that there were such governments that [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu dismantled with his own hands. When you rely on extreme factors – and this is a lesson we learned from the last government – there is always something in the political dynamics that will lead them to radicalize their positions and create a crisis.

“This is how it was with the Joint List and [MK Ghaida Rinawie] Zoabi from Meretz. There is always something, some reason to overthrow a government.

“In the end, being a minister in the government or being prime minister requires you to have ideological and practical stability, and you can’t do that with extreme elements; you have to understand that. In a government of 61, there is one [MK] who drives all 60,” Hendel said.

What does Israel need?

What Israel needs, Hendel argued, is a unity government, such as one led by a rotation between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Netanyahu.

“It’s not that I want Netanyahu. On the contrary, I tried to get him out in every possible way. If I could, he would now be retired, in Hawaii, drinking a milkshake.

“But right now, it is the Likud’s and his own decision, and I have to treat it from a perspective of what is good for the State of Israel. And what is good for the State of Israel, so that it can function, is stability,” Hendel said.

Since the 1990s, the average minister in Israel has served for just 15 months, Hendel claimed.

“This a sign of a country gone crazy,” he said. “I love the country very much and it is very important to me, much more important to me than my anger at Netanyahu or my desire for him to go home.

“So my only real alternative – and I admit that this is not what I tried in the first, second and third elections – is to establish a unity government, and yes, there is no unity government without the Likud. Anyone who says otherwise is lying,” Hendel argued.

Hendel, 47, grew up in a religious-Zionist family in the settlement of Elkana, but removed his skullcap during high school. He served as a team and company commander in Israel’s naval commando unit, Shayetet 13, and later completed a doctorate in history at Tel Aviv University. He worked as a journalist and as director of communications and public diplomacy under Netanyahu, before joining politics in 2019.

Hendel admitted that the parties at the ideological extremes – the Religious Zionist Party, on one hand, and the Joint List, on the other – are problematic, irrespective of the size of a coalition. These parties feed a political culture that does not benefit the country.

“I offer a home to those who are right-wing, right-wing people who respect the state, or ‘normal religious Zionism,’ as I call it. This is how I grew up, amongst people who see the state and its institutions as something sacred. This does not mean that they should not be criticized, but it does mean that [Israel] is an expression of our sovereignty and the Zionist vision.

The Religious Zionist Party, led by MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, does not share this vision, Hendel claimed.

Zionist Spirit is a home for “those who do not get along with the Judaism of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich,” he said. These are people who talk about a Judaism that brings people together, not religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox monopoly. “The biggest fiction, the biggest lie, the biggest fake, is that [Ben-Gvir and Smotrich] call themselves religious Zionists. It’s not religious Zionism – it’s ultra-Orthodox nationalism. They are even sometimes more extreme than the ultra-Orthodox in matters of religion and state,” Hendel said.

“I’m an economic rightist and also a rightist in matters of religion and state. I want the state to interfere as little as possible in the religion of its residents – herut [liberty], as the party that founded the Likud used to be called.”

The Likud also bears responsibility for the toxic political atmosphere, Hendel said.

“You saw one morning this week that [former jailed Israeli spy Jonathan] Pollard supported us, and immediately became a traitor and an enemy, and everyone cursed him. In the evening, he took back his support; he was scared because he was really cursed – and then suddenly he is fine again. [In the Likud], everything is examined according to what is good politically, not what is good for the country. I don’t look at things that way,” Hendel said.

Successful communciation  

HE SAID he was most proud of a number of accomplishments in the Communications Ministry, including speeding up Israel’s pace in laying fiber-optic cables for high-speed Internet, lowering the price of home telephone lines and making the decision to privatize the Israel Postal Authority.

“My main pride is that [the fiber-optic cables] exist in the Golan Heights, in the Jordan Valley, in the Negev... in Eilat, in the Gaza Strip and on the border [with] Lebanon. In Judea and Samaria the majority already have optic fibers.

“The interesting story is that when I started, I was told that there was no economic logic. When you take a town like Kanaf on the Golan Heights or Kibbutz Eilot [near Eilat], it makes no economic sense to put fiber-optic cables there. It’s far, and one apartment building in Rishon Lezion is the same as the entire Eilot region.

“And I insisted, through competition, not through coercion, not through socialist legislation, but, rather, through a right-wing economic agenda and a free market, we incentivized competition in small places, and now many firms are competing fiercely to win tenders,” Hendel said.

“I believe that if I’m afraid to do something, I’m abusing my role. That’s why I moved to privatize the Israel Post Authority, even though there is a strong workers’ union there.”

While prior ministers were afraid to approach the issue, Hendel “went to privatization, and everything was fine. The workers’ union may not vote for me, but I did what had to be done,” Hendel said.

But his most controversial decision was to cancel the haredi monopoly on “kosher” cellphone numbers. This was also part of Hendel’s economic agenda.

Until Hendel’s reform, a haredi committee on telecommunications had the ability to control people’s cellphone numbers, therefore blocking their ability to buy a smartphone and use the same number. These numbers began with specific digits, thus enabling anyone on the other side of a phone call to see that the caller indeed had a “kosher” number. This led to many haredim holding two cellphones with two different numbers, the “kosher” one for show and the other to be used secretly.

“That’s why I took up the issue of kosher cellphone lines. This began with complaints from haredi people, not people from the secular sector or religious Zionism. If there is injustice in a market... [members of] haredi society deserve their rights. I am not forcing anything on anyone, but there cannot be arbitrary blockage of numbers just because one hassidic group does not want its members to speak to another group,” Hendel said.

The haredi issue

THE ISSUE of haredim is a symptom of a larger problem – autonomies within Israeli society of both the haredi and Arab sectors, and especially among the Bedouin population in the Negev. This is the most acute problem that Israel faces today, and Hendel wants to be the one to fix it. He has his eyes set on the Public Security Ministry.

“It’s illogical to become the public security minister and think you’ll succeed politically, because it’s a position that no one has survived in politically for 74 years. I am still going for it, because I recognize that this is the biggest danger there is – a real civil war.

“When there are entire areas where the laws of the State of Israel do not apply, and you allow polygamy, extortion and illegal construction, fear in the streets, shootings within the Arab sector that then spill over into the Jewish sector, and loss of land, then you are basically saying that you are giving up these areas. The more the Likud said that it was a ‘strong Right’ during the many years of its rule, the weaker its grip was on the Negev and the Galilee, until we lost them completely,” Hendel said.

According to Hendel, the issue needs to be addressed on three different levels.

“The first is the level of decision-makers – to understand that there needs to be an adequate budget for the Public Security Ministry.

“The second is the legal level, which we did not succeed in during the last year. I think that Justice Minister [Gideon] Sa’ar tried to do all kinds of things but simply did not succeed. He failed to pass minimum prison sentences for possession of illegal weapons.... We have not been able to stop the ‘revolving door phenomenon,’ where you arrest criminals who enter the court but then are immediately released. We have not been able to appoint enough judges so that we can move forward and loosen the traffic jam in the courts; and we have not been able to create speedy justice mechanisms for agricultural-related criminal offenses,” Hendel said.

The third level is to improve the status of police officers. A police officer will not risk his life for a minimal salary and no prestige. While the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet enjoy such prestige, police officers are at the bottom of the totem pole, and this also has to change, Hendel argued.

The issue is also about carrots, not just sticks. But experience shows that many organizations that attempt to improve the lives of citizens in the Bedouin sector end up failing because of the lack of proper sticks to ensure public safety.

“The carrot has to be part of the stick. Unfortunately, we need to start with sticks since this is not a minor event,” Hendel said.

There is one thing that Hendel is not willing to budge on, and that is the matter of Bedouin having a separate, non-Zionist identity.

“In my view, Jews and Muslims in Britain can swear an oath to the head of the Anglican Church without a problem, to the Queen. A Jew and a Muslim in Switzerland have no problem saluting the flag, and when the flag is raised he gets excited and stands, even though the flag has a cross. They do not feel disrespectful. A Catholic in Holland sings the anthem, even though it’s a Protestant anthem, and life goes on. In a democracy there is always tolerance of the majority toward the minority, but there also must be tolerance of the minority toward the majority,” Hendel said.

“Therefore, the more you hesitate about being a Jewish country, the more you will hesitate about being a democratic country. In my view, my role as a public servant is to protect the Land of Israel like I protect democracy, and to protect democracy like I protect the Land of Israel. The best place to live in the Middle East as a Muslim or Christian is here in the State of Israel. Why? Only for one reason: that we are a Jewish and democratic country. Without the Jewish aspect, we would not be democratic, and without the democratic aspect, as Jews we would not be able to live with each other,” he said.

“And so I think that any concession is a concession that harms the [Bedouin community’s] ability to integrate. It should be an iron wall. Yes, you live in a Jewish country, as a minority with completely equal rights. My children and the children of a Bedouin are the same in terms of their rights, but I want them to be equal in terms of their duties... because this creates identification. When you serve the country and you feel like you are a part [of it], and that the flag is yours as well, then you belong.

If this does not happen, events will eventually spiral out of control, as they did during Operation Guardian of the Walls last May.

“If we do not take on this hot potato, even if it causes burns, we will end up in a civil war, and that is much more dangerous for everyone,” Hendel said.

Calling all anglos

HE ENDED the interview with a call to Israel’s English-speaking community.

“I think that the readers of The Jerusalem Post, who I know well, identify as being very Jewish and very Zionist. I think that when you look Left and Right, there is no other party to vote for except the Zionist Spirit. These are people who believe in the defense of the homeland, in settlement and the absorption of immigrants. They know that religious Zionism is a bridge and not bridge burning.... It is the population that connects all Israelis, the secular and the religious, and does not burn bridges with them out of an attempt to impose their religious or political views,” Hendel said.

“[Israeli English-speakers] are not there, and their world of values ​​is not similar to what ​​you see in the Likud. Most English-speakers [in Israel] define themselves as right-wing, [hence] they cannot find themselves with Benny Gantz, despite his positive attributes, because he is a leftist. And they cannot find themselves in the values ​​of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, which I do not accept. I think that everyone should enlist in the IDF and not evade the army, as we see in this party.

“So I think that this population group can find itself in the Zionist Spirit.... The world of values ​​is what should determine people’s vote, not any other consideration,” Hendel said.

“I think that, in the end, we will see the Zionist Spirit with six to seven mandates. I see it in the polls; we are slowly growing, and I think that our electorate, the statesmanlike Right and religious Zionism, are the most important electorate in this election. This is the electorate that will determine the fate of the State of Israel, stop the hatred, stop the boycotts, and try to establish a stable coalition that will work for the people of Israel in all the areas we talked about,” Hendel concluded.•