MK Zvi Hauser in the Knesset on May 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.)
Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90. MK Zvi Hauser in the Knesset on May 19, 2020.
Interview'You can’t run a country in such a deep crisis of faith'

Finding new home in New Hope, ex-Netanyahu top aide seeks to show Likud the door

MK Zvi Hauser, a lifelong conservative and former cabinet secretary, has helped found 3 party slates over the past two years in his bid to oust his former boss

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90. MK Zvi Hauser in the Knesset on May 19, 2020.

Knesset member Zvi Hauser has been a lawmaker for just 21 months, the strangest 21 months in the history of Israel’s parliament. He’s now running in his fourth election in that short time, and on the slate of the third party he has joined forces with in that time.

As with many now vying for a Knesset spot in the March 23 race, the chaos of the past two years has made his first experience as a lawmaker a wild and turbulent one. But he’s stuck with it. A lifelong conservative, Hauser is now on a mission. “I reached the conclusion two years ago, as a person from the nationalist camp, that we can’t continue with Netanyahu. So I left my comfort zone, crossed the Rubicon, and said we have to offer an alternative,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview earlier this month.

An attorney by training, Hauser, 52, is a textbook Israeli right-winger. During his high school years in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, he was elected national chair of the youth branch of the Tehiya party. Tehiya, or “rebirth,” was originally named Banai, a Hebrew acronym for “Covenant of the Loyalists of the Land of Israel.” It was founded in 1979 by dissident Likud lawmakers protesting then-prime minister Menachem Begin’s handing of the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt as part of the peace treaty between the two nations.

Hauser would go on to a successful career in private practice specializing in media and broadcast regulation, expertise that, together with his right-wing political connections, would transform him into an influential figure in the reforms of Israel’s telecom and media landscape in recent decades. He was one of the early voices calling for breaking up the old Channel 1 public broadcaster, a move that would eventually result in the establishment of today’s Kan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser at a weekly cabinet meeting in July 2009. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (l) speaks with then-cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser at a weekly cabinet meeting in July 2009. (Ariel Jerozolimski/Flash90/File)

Over the years, he helped spur reforms in the radio market, telecom, public television, the regulation of news broadcasts — always with an eye toward the economic liberalization of long-centralized (and not coincidentally, politically aligned with the old Labor left) broadcast and media institutions. In 1997, he was appointed chair of the powerful Israeli Council for Cable and Satellite Broadcasts, which set the rules for the broadcast revolution that saw a huge number of Israeli households shift to cable and satellite television providers.

Thus established as a well-known figure among conservative public service mavens, Hauser’s first real taste of high-level politics came in 2009, when he was asked by the newly elected prime minister, one Benjamin Netanyahu, to serve as his cabinet secretary. Netanyahu liked and trusted Hauser, and asked him to serve again with the establishment of the 33rd Government in 2013.

That’s when things quickly turned sour.

Hauser was one of the top staffers asked to tender their resignations that year over Netanyahu’s anger at their filing a sexual harassment complaint against the prime minister’s chief political consiglieri, Natan Eshel, for allegedly taking surreptitious sexually explicit photographs of a female staff member in Netanyahu’s office. Two other senior staffers were signed on that complaint: the prime minister’s military secretary at the time, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, and media adviser Yoaz Hendel, now Hauser’s closest political collaborator.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) at the Knesset, ahead of the opening session of the new parliament on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Hauser and Hendel are united by that experience, by their shared conservative views, and by a public image of nerdy intellectualism. Hendel holds a doctorate in classical Greek military strategy. Both men have played prominent roles in the burgeoning world of Israeli right-wing think tanks in recent years, with Hauser serving as a key advocate for the controversial nation-state law passed in 2018.

That was the Zvi Hauser — confirmed conservative, longtime public servant, in his youth a conservative rebel against Begin and now fallen out with Netanyahu over sexual harassment accusations in his office — who finally took the plunge into the political fray in 2019 when he joined the Telem party’s Knesset slate. It was a fitting political home for Hauser: a conservative ticket that despite its conservatism had positioned itself in opposition to the Likud prime minister Hauser had once loyally served.

In the two years since that decision, Hauser has earned his share of criticism, at first from the right for running in a center-left alliance (Blue and White, which Telem joined) committed to unseating Netanyahu, then from the center-left for joining, as part of the splinter party Derech Eretz, the very unity government that helped keep Netanyahu in power.

It would be hard to overstate Hauser’s importance in the political events of the past year. Together with Hendel, the two-man Derech Eretz faction has at various points held the deciding votes — or rather, withheld the deciding votes — that both Likud and Blue and White needed for victory. Derech Eretz could have put Netanyahu over the top and handed him a narrow but cohesive conservative government, or given Blue and White leader Benny Gantz his center-left minority government with some outside help from the Arab political factions of the Joint List.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But they steadfastly refused to do either, insisting in the wake of the March 2020 election on a unity government that, they believed, would help end the political deadlock and deliver a government that could lead the country through the pandemic crisis.

Hauser and Hendel clung to that unity government to the last. Even as late as August 2020, when it was clear to others that Netanyahu and Gantz’s bickering had frozen key reforms and left the government unable to seriously address the pandemic, and when it was clear, too, that Netanyahu would never advance a state budget if it meant eventually surrendering the prime minister’s seat to Gantz, it was the “Hauser compromise” that once again delayed the inevitable collapse of the 23rd Knesset until December.

Derech Eretz is now running for the 24th Knesset as part of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope slate — once again in a conservative party devoted to Netanyahu’s ouster.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Times of Israel: The center-left is angry with you. They say you only got into the Knesset on center-left votes, but then you refused to support a minority Gantz-led government.

MK Zvi Hauser in the Knesset on May 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.)

Hauser: Derech Eretz shaped the political reality at four key political junctures in the last two years. First, we joined up with the concept expressed by the Blue and White [coalition], and we represented the right-wing plank of it.

Blue and White was an alliance of parties and people who joined together in the understanding that Israel can’t continue with Netanyahu. The goal was to change the leadership. We came with the same goal, and also with a hawkish, right-wing worldview.

And three times we tried to get that done. But we didn’t succeed in convincing enough of the public to settle the question.

Still, what Blue and White did — and people don’t understand it — was that it prevented Netanyahu across three elections from establishing a government in his image, which would have allowed him to institute changes we saw as problematic, like the French law [granting a serving prime minister immunity from criminal prosecution].

You can’t run a country in such a deep crisis of faith between the people and the political system

There are those on the center-left who think they could have achieved that without our right-wing plank. But Blue and White wouldn’t have accomplished that without the right, without the ingredient that would later become Derech Eretz. Many voters defined themselves as center-right and felt they could vote Blue and White because of that ingredient.

TOI: And yet, you refused to give the deciding vote to a minority government that would have ousted Netanyahu because it would have needed outside support from the Joint List of Arab parties.

Hauser: Another juncture where Derech Eretz was pivotal was our decision not to allow either option available to us after the March elections: a minority government dependent on the Joint List, and a government of 61 seats for Netanyahu. Derech Eretz held the deciding votes.

New Knesset members at the Knesset ahead of the opening session of the new parliament, on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

We support the full integration and the state taking full responsibility for all Israelis, including Arab Israelis, but we don’t see the point in cooperating with a political grouping that doesn’t share a basic commitment to a Jewish and democratic state and doesn’t see a shared future. Just like we won’t go with Kahanists, we won’t go with Balad [an Arab anti-Zionist faction within the Joint List]. If a government depended on Kahanists, we wouldn’t go with it either.

The Joint List alone voted against the Abraham Accords [in the Knesset]. You know why? Not because they oppose peace with the UAE or Bahrain, but because they oppose peace with Israel.

The entire state of mind of the executive branch is frozen. A fourth election in two years is a painful blow

We said this not only to the outside world but inside [Blue and White]. We were sent out to convince right-wing voters to vote for Blue and White, and we refused to go with Netanyahu and give him his 61 seats. Then, when we stood our ground on the Joint List, they called us “opinionated.”

We didn’t do anything we didn’t say we would do ahead of time, and everything we said we’d do, we did. I was surprised by those who said, “Yes, they said they’d do this, but I was sure they were winking and would do something else.”

Joint List chief MK Ayman Odeh attends a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

TOI: You stood your ground and forced a unity government between Gantz and Netanyahu. Do you still think that was the right decision?

Hauser: On the eve of a pandemic, in our worst-ever economic crisis, in a health crisis that even now hasn’t abated, it was right to establish an emergency government in the form of a unity government. That was a principled decision.

We had attractive and significant offers to do otherwise. We could have joined [a Netanyahu government] and locked in our political future for the next eight years.

Just like we won’t go with Kahanists, we won’t go with Balad

But at that moment we thought that national unity was the right solution to deal with the challenges facing Israel, which are not so different from other emergencies Israel has faced. Israel established unity governments on the eve of the Six Day War and in the great economic crisis of 1984. [In ’84,] Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, who were further apart than Netanyahu and Gantz, created the best government Israel had seen in decades, which lay the economic and infrastructure foundations for the absorption of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the next decade. It changed Israel.

So we supported a unity government, we shaped that reality.

And now I say in pain, even though the situation, the economic crisis, the health uncertainties, the social crisis, are all at their climax, unfortunately — and I say it bluntly and not diplomatically — Netanyahu took that idea of unity and threw it in the garbage. Instead of national unity, we had a national disappointment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

We saw something unprecedented happen: massive public support for unity turned, for the first time ever in Israel’s history, into a majority in polls against unity. That’s a historic low point for Israel.

In August, with the “Hauser compromise,” we said, “let’s give unity another chance.” I was sure in August that the system would right itself, that the prime minister would wake up and the train would get back on track, that the state budget would pass. For almost three years we haven’t had a state budget passed, or any reforms. I was cabinet secretary, I know how things work, I know how critical a budget is.

Unfortunately, even after those last few months, the prime minister decided to hold the nation’s interests hostage to his own. The fact that no budget has passed has no other rational explanation.

TOI: You see the state budget as a critical issue, but it’s barely talked about in the public debate. The Times of Israel has noted in our reporting that the school system struggled to open in September because of budget gaps, that the fast train to Eilat is frozen because of the lack of a budget, and so on. Is that what you mean?

Hauser: The fact that no budget has passed here in the last three years doesn’t just hurt the kindergartens and the train to Eilat. It hurts the defense establishment’s ability to prepare for the challenges that this time and place have put before us. You can’t run a defense establishment with a “continuing budget” for three years [that is, spending based on the last budget bill to successfully pass the Knesset].

On the eve of a pandemic, in our worst-ever economic crisis, in a health crisis that even now hasn’t abated, it was right to establish an emergency government in the form of a unity government. That was a principled decision

There are hidden costs that the public doesn’t understand. The realm of national security is dynamic. The speed of change in the last decade in the Middle East is unprecedented. You can’t compare today’s challenges to past decades. So versatility, flexibility, the ability of the defense system to function with absolute budget certainty and the ability to correct and adapt it efficiently, is critical.

The entire state of mind of the executive branch is frozen. A fourth election in two years — you know what that means in terms of managerial uncertainty, vision uncertainty, budget uncertainty — it’s a painful blow for the country.

The-US president Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) in the Oval Office of the White House on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Netanyahu has enormous achievements to his credit. I’ve worked with him for decades. I can give you an hour and a half lecture on his talents and contributions. But what’s happening now, this battle now headed into its fourth round, the statement that you can set the country aside because you’re fighting your fight and nothing else matters, that’s a far cry from the philosophy Netanyahu claimed to represent and helped inculcate. “Israel before anything else” became Blue and White’s motto.

Israel can’t afford the abuse Netanyahu is putting it through.

TOI: So you see consistency in the move from Telem to Blue and White to Derech Eretz to New Hope? The party names change, but the basic mission remains to unseat Netanyahu from the right?

Hauser: An alternative is critical. We must establish a stable coalition that allows us to restore the resilience of Israeli society: to restore solidarity, heal the fractures, restore trust in the political system.

You can’t run a country in such a deep crisis of faith between the people and the political system, and between the different branches of government. In the end, there are institutions that keep Israel standing: the judicial system, the economy, academia, the defense establishment.

The tragedy of this moment isn’t just the crisis of trust between the public and the political system, but the lack of trust among all those systems.

A country like ours, that still needs to develop, to pull ahead — a political system can’t make a country pull ahead, but it can create the conditions for success. Right now it’s not doing that. We’re paying more hidden costs than we realize.

TOI: Why Sa’ar? Why New Hope?

Hauser: I’ve known Gideon Sa’ar for 37 years, since I was 16 and he was 18. We’re friends and comrades. And for years, we’ve been talking about finding the right path to walk.

I can tell you that I reached the conclusion two years ago, as a person from the nationalist camp, that we can’t continue with Netanyahu. So I left my comfort zone, crossed the Rubicon, and said we have to offer an alternative.

It didn’t work.

But I think today more and more people from the nationalist camp understand that it’s time to pass the baton and present an alternative to Netanyahu’s rule.

The prime minister decided to hold the nation’s interests hostage to his own. The fact that no budget has passed has no other rational explanation

As soon as Sa’ar made the decision [to leave Likud and form his own party], we were the first to join. I believe and hope he will bring that change — finally, a party was formed in Israel that says, there’s someone to vote for. I can go to the ballot box and for the first time in years vote for a party without holding my nose.

There’s this optical illusion in Israeli politics that you can be a significant player, a champion and a leader, while treading lightly when it comes to a worldview. But Sa’ar is a man with a worldview. He’s also had enough time in politics, and he has the character to surround himself with people who also have opinions and views.

Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Let me say something philosophical-historic for a moment. There’s something interesting happening here. More or less from the start of the political organization of the Jewish Yishuv in the land of Israel in the 1920s, you saw the dominance of the Labor party. It was dominant for 50 years, from the 20s until [Labor’s election loss in] 1977. And ‘77 began five decades of dominance by Likud.

I think we’re standing at the precipice of a change. You saw how the Labor leadership in the 70s took its political power for granted, and with its bad leadership led the public to hand the mantle of power to a new leadership.

What is happening before our eyes is the public saying, “I’m passing the mantle again.” A leadership has developed here that feels it no longer needs to represent the public’s interest, but only its own. It’s a kind of Israeli cycle. We are now seeing the same twilight that we saw in the ‘70s.

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