Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz – who, if things go as planned, will be premier in a year and a half – and their negotiating teams spent weeks hammering out a deal to establish a unity government.
Again and again, talks broke down, but they always restarted because there were only two choices available to Gantz and Netanyahu: Either figure out a way to work together, or there will be a fourth election.
Neither side had a majority without the other: Netanyahu had only 59 supporters out of 120 Knesset seats, and Gantz had 59, as well, before Blue and White split apart.
Who were the two holdouts who kept the candidates from going it alone? MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, now known as the Derech Eretz faction. These two political neophytes held far more sway than the numbers would have one think.
Before entering politics, Hendel was a veteran journalist and author of several books. Hauser worked as an attorney with years of experience in management and adviser positions in the government.
The duo served in the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu. Hauser was cabinet secretary between 2009 and 2013, and Hendel was Netanyahu’s director of communications and spokesman. Both left in 2012 after reporting sexual harassment of a female PMO employee by Netanyahu’s then-bureau chief Natan Eshel. They had kept the information from Netanyahu so that he could not possibly be implicated in the scandal, but the prime minister said he no longer trusted them.
Hauser and Hendel entered politics ahead of the first 2019 election as candidates in Blue and White from the Telem Party, led by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. The entire party was meant to be the right flank of Blue and White, but Hauser and Hendel stood out as especially outspoken about their views. They emphasized their support for applying Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and worked to attract moderate right-wing voters during the repeat election cycle.
AHEAD OF the third election, one of the Likud’s slogans was that “Gantz doesn’t have a government without the Joint List.” And when the results came in, it was true. The right-wing bloc remained loyal to Netanyahu, which made it impossible for Gantz to form a majority with Zionist parties.
With the Joint List, Gantz had the support of 61 MKs recommending him to President Reuven Rivlin, making him the first candidate for prime minister. But having the recommendations of the majority of the Knesset is not the same as having a coalition.
At that point, Gantz and the rest of Blue and White’s leadership began looking more seriously than before at the possibility of a minority government established with the Joint List’s votes.
But Hendel and Hauser put their foot down and refused to support such a government, setting off a series of political events that led us to where we are today.
“One of the things Blue and White said from the beginning was we wanted a unity government without Netanyahu and not a minority government,” Hendel said this week. “We only wanted partners who recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and won’t cooperate with Kahanists [Otzma Yehudit] or the Joint List.”
The reason not to have a coalition with the Joint List, specifically, is that many of its MKs have expressed support for terrorists as well as the party’s overall rejection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
“We’re not against Arabs,” Hendel said. “The Joint List has people we can work with on some political matters. But it’s something very symbolic.”
Plus, Hauser and Hendel argued at the time, such a government would be unlikely to work on a technical level. The minority government would need support from both Yisrael Beytenu, which is right-wing on many issues, and the Joint List, over a length of time to survive, not just in the one vote to form the government, as Blue and White’s former co-leader Yair Lapid argued.
Then, when the government inevitably would fall apart quickly, Netanyahu would be able to make hay from the situation and return to the Prime Minister’s Office by a landslide in the next election, they projected.
Some in the party were furious at the duo for obstructing Gantz’s only chance to form a government without Netanyahu, and Ya’alon even reportedly asked them to resign. Protesters stood outside their homes. They were accused of betraying Blue and White voters – though, again, the party had originally said it was against a minority government.
The other side started pressuring them as well. Netanyahu didn’t speak to them directly – the bad blood is still there – but his negotiating team gave them the political version of a blank check, offering them any job they wanted. As Hauser and Hendel tell it, these offers came on an almost daily basis. We could have had foreign minister Yoaz Hendel at this point.
In a way, they could have been comfortable in a right-wing coalition. Ideologically, they have much in common with the Likud – where Hauser was a longtime, prominent member – and even Yamina.
But they also share Blue and White’s view that it’s wrong for a prime minister under indictment to stay in office, and that Netanyahu has been eroding Israeli democracy in various ways, and did not want to be his saviors.
In addition, they were ideologically in favor of a unity government. They thought that unity was what Israel needed over a year ago, and even more so now that Israel and the world are in the throes of a massive public health crisis.
Still, the pressure was overwhelming.
“I trained to be a naval commando, but this was harder, on a personal level,” Hendel admitted.
At one point, Hendel and Hauser went to Rabbi Benny Lau and author and Torah scholar Dr. Micha Goodman to seek inspiration. They learned about leadership in the books of Prophets, and looking through the lens of millennia of Jewish history strengthened them in their resolve to insist on national unity.
So, Hauser and Hendel were steadfast in their opposition to a minority government and a narrow right-wing government.
The two MKs who broke off from Blue and White to form Derech Eretz were unmovable, and in that way, they became the matchmakers forcing Gantz and Netanyahu together, despite seemingly insurmountable differences.
Now – pending votes in the Knesset – it seems that Hauser and Hendel will get what they wanted, a unity government. It’s not perfect from their viewpoint. Netanyahu will be prime minister for a year and a half while under indictment. There are more ministers than ever before. But there are checks on both sides, and there will be a coalition representing large swaths of Israeli society.
RATHER THAN be foreign minister, Hendel is expected to get either the Agriculture or Communications portfolio. Hauser is set to be chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a member of the Judicial Selection Committee.
The committee was a major point of contention in coalition negotiations. It is customary, but by no means mandatory, for one of the two MKs on the panel to be an opposition member. There have been many political maneuvers contravening that tradition or its spirit. For example, in the last Knesset, the elected opposition member was from Yisrael Beytenu, whose views on judicial activism were indistinguishable from those of the coalition, and who later became a coalition member.
Because Hauser is right-wing on most matters, and that includes the judiciary, there have been murmurs from within Blue and White and shouts from the opposition that he’s an unfair appointment. A source close to the MK pointed out that just because Hauser is conservative on constitutional matters, such as the Supreme Court intervening in Knesset affairs, doesn’t mean that he’s looking to weaken the rule of law when it comes to criminal matters – including Netanyahu’s pending trial.
Plus, while presumed justice minister Avi Nissenkorn obviously won’t be in the opposition, he is thought to favor judicial activism, and it seems that the majority of the nine-member committee will end up being on his side, despite both MKs being more conservative.
Moving forward, Derech Eretz’s polling shows that at this point, it is worth two to four Knesset seats. The faction hopes to prove itself in the coming years and attract more voters, but is realistically hoping to form a partnership with another party ahead of the next election.
The faction is not interested in an identity party meant to represent a certain population group. There’s some speculation that it would be interested in a post-Netanyahu Likud. But Blue and White is also a serious option, now that Yesh Atid is no longer part of the package. Despite being to Gantz’s Right, Hendel and Hauser feel they work well with him and share a lot of his views.
In a way, Hauser and Hendel might have maneuvered themselves into a political trap, where their ideology precluded them from advancing to a more prominent position, which, in turn, could have helped them attract new and more supporters.
But in the end, they felt that they could not facilitate the formation of a government they didn’t believe in, and they hope that sticking to their word will serve them well moving forward.
“In my estimation, following ideology is worth something,” Hendel said. “I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t feel that I could do something else. It’s not a very political way of thinking.”
“I think we did the right thing for Israel,” he added.