Israel's Yoaz Hendel: Meet the outgoing politician who's still a good man - analysis

Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel's announcement that he is temporarily leaving politics shows that decency, integrity and getting things done are not enough.

 Yoaz Hendel, Minister of Communications, at a Knesset cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yoaz Hendel, Minister of Communications, at a Knesset cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Many people would agree that Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel is a decent man with integrity who as a minister got things done. 

Hendel’s Facebook announced Tuesday that he was temporarily leaving politics shows, however, that decency, integrity and getting things done as a minister are not enough. 

To succeed and survive in politics you need to be a good politician. When the country’s political parties file their list of candidates for the upcoming Knesset election by midnight on Thursday, neither Hendel, nor his political partner Zvi Hauser, will be on any list. Both men dropped out of the race on Tuesday. 

How do we know that Hendel was not a good politician?  

Because in his three years in politics, he has already – Tzipi Livni-like – been in six different political frameworks: Telem, Blue and White, Yesh Atid-Telem, Derech Eretz, New Hope and – most recently and for the shortest period – the Zionist Spirit.  

That’s a lot of different political frameworks in just over three short years. He went from following Moshe Ya’alon in Telem, to Benny Gantz in the Blue and White Party, to Yair Lapid in Yesh Atid-Telem, to Gideon Sa’ar in the New Hope, to his recent alliance with Ayelet Shaked in the Zionist Spirit

 INTERIOR MINISTER Ayelet Shaked and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel wave to supporters at a gathering in Ramat Gan, last Wednesday, as they announce they will run together as a new party in the upcoming Knesset election (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) INTERIOR MINISTER Ayelet Shaked and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel wave to supporters at a gathering in Ramat Gan, last Wednesday, as they announce they will run together as a new party in the upcoming Knesset election (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

And at an earlier period, he was affiliated with Likud and served as then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman

That’s not good politics, because in each framework that you join, and then leave, you make enemies who will want to trip you up at the first opportunity. It also sends a message to the public that you are fickle and opportunistic

Ayelet Shaked also suffers from Israeli party-jumping syndrome

Shaked herself, who just signed a merger (again) with Bayit Yehudi, suffers from the same party-jumping syndrome, one of the reasons that in half a decade she has gone from someone seen as a tremendous electoral asset, to someone who is hunting for a political home that will scrape over the 3.25% electoral threshold. Yet she, too, is a minister who knows how to get things done. 

The Israeli public rewards party loyalty

Party loyalty should not be the be-all and end-all for any politician, but the public tends to reward those who stick with one party and do not jump from one to another at the first opportunity. 

Lapid, who ran with Hendel and Hauser on the same Blue and White ticket in the first three elections of the current election cycle, had this to say when the two left him in December 2020 and joined Sa’ar’s New Hope party: “Hendel and Hauser are joining their fifth party. This is undoubtedly an Israeli – if not world – record. This is one of the reasons that the public trust in politicians is at a low point.”

“Hendel and Hauser are joining their fifth party. This is undoubtedly an Israeli – if not world – record. This is one of the reasons that the public trust in politicians is at a low point.”

Yair Lapid

Jumping from one party to another doesn’t add to the public’s respect for its politicians, because when it is done repeatedly it smacks less of standing up for principles, and more of political opportunism. And Israeli political history has shown that at a certain point the public doesn’t reward such action, but instead extracts a price for what it views as a cynical political ploy.

Just ask Livni. Not long ago – in 2009 – she was just one coalition compromise with the haredi parties away from becoming prime minister. Today – after jumping from one party to the next – she is no longer on the national stage. 

Hendel and Hauser both left senior and comfortable positions inside the prime minister’s office in 2012/2013  – Hendel as Netanyahu’s media adviser and Hauser as cabinet secretary  – over differences with the prime minister stemming from the handling of a sexual harassment complaint against Natan Eshel, who at the time was the prime minister’s chief of staff and the most powerful man in the office.

Israel could use more people like Hendel in politics. Raised in the religious Elkana settlement, an officer in the elite “Shayeter 13” commando unit, a military historian with a PhD from Tel Aviv University, an author, journalist – both print and broadcast – and lecturer, he is a patriot with reasonable, well thought out and well-articulated ideas about the direction he feels this country should be headed.

That conscientious, hard-working, thoughtful people like him get spit out of the political system is a pity, but it is not only an Israeli phenomenon, nor is only the "system" to blame. 

Smart and sincere politicians struggle to survive all over the world

Smart, straight, dedicated creative and sincere politicians are finding it difficult to survive in political waters all over the world – not just in Israel. Did you ever wonder why in the US, a country of 330 million people, the best they could come up with in 2020 to run for president was Donald Trump and Joe Biden? To succeed in politics, a ruthlessness is needed that tends to weed out good people who have neither the killer instincts nor the killer elbows needed to make it. 

But, again, the system is not entirely to blame. So are the politicians who want to have an impact, and bring about change, but don’t have the political skills to do so. Implementing change means needing to survive in politics, and surviving in politics also means – from time to time – having to compromise on principles. The key is knowing when to stay firm, and when to show flexibility. 

In his brief stint in politics, Hendel has drawn some firm red lines he is unwilling to cross. These include not sitting in a government supported by the Arab Joint List, and not entering a narrow right-wing government under Netanyahu. One might think he would have been rewarded for sticking to his principles. He wasn’t, and now has ended up as a man without a viable political framework.

It's a shame because Hendel has a worthy vision for Israel: a country where the government's authority spreads over all sectors, where there are no autonomous regions – be they haredi or Arab – and where people with different ideologies and viewpoints work together for the common good.  But to implement a vision like this, one needs to be in the game, and to stay in the game one needs to play politics. 

Is it better to remain 100% true to your principles, yet have no political power to implement them, or to learn to play the political game so you can stay on the field and impact the outcome? 

Hendel chose the former path, and as a result, at least until the next elections (which might be happening a lot quicker than any of us hope) he will be looking on from the sidelines. That is definitely not where he would rather be.