Minister Hendel bows out of Knesset race, days after Zionist Spirit breakup

Short-lived party collapsed under weight of poor polling and divisions over aligning with Likud

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Yoaz Hendel in Modi'in, December 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yoaz Hendel in Modi'in, December 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel bowed out of the Knesset race Tuesday, just three days after ending his short-lived Zionist Spirit partnership with Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked.

Hendel, who leads the tiny Derech Eretz party, said he preferred to pay “a political price” rather than lend his support to a narrow government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, which he believes Shaked will do.

“When I realized that this partnership would eventually lead to a narrow government, I preferred to dismantle and pay the political price,” Hendel said to explain his departure from politics on Tuesday.

Shaked and Hendel launched their now defunct party to speak to ideological right-wing voters uneasy with extremist elements in the Likud-led right-religious bloc. They promised to push for the formation of a broad unity government, but their vision failed to capture support from the electorate and the party consistently polled below the electoral threshold necessary to enter the Knesset in November.

On Monday, Shaked said she would likely recommend Netanyahu as the next prime minister after the election. Party sources said she was committed to not lending her hand to form a razor-thin government of only 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, but that she would consider a narrow government with only two or three more seats behind it.

Hendel — who is ideologically right-wing — said he believes a narrow, right-wing-only government is not the solution to Israel’s current internal divisions.

Ayelet Shaked, (left) and Yoaz Hendel at the Zionist Spirit launch party in Ramat Gan, on July 27, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I really wanted to be the ladder that leads to the establishment of a unity government. I understood that excluding half of the people, no matter from which side of the political map, only increases the sense of polarization and undermines the resilience of society,” Hendel said.

“Internal division, cheap hatred, tribalism — all these produce clear and immediate danger” to Israel, he added, while also saying Israel’s ongoing political instability on the eve of its fifth election since 2019 is a “strategic threat.”

Since joining politics in 2019, the journeyman politician and former Likud adviser has migrated from Blue and White, to forming his own Derech Eretz party, to aligning with New Hope, and finally hitching his fortunes to the failed Zionist Spirit experiment with Shaked.

Bowing out of the race, Hendel claimed responsibility for his decisions and acknowledged he’d made “political mistakes.”

“But I hope and believe that I did not make any moral mistakes,” Hendel said.

Shaked announced Tuesday that she plans to run at the top of a unified list with her old party Jewish Home, under the Jewish Home name. The decision is awaiting final approval from Jewish Home leadership.

Hendel’s political partner in their Derech Eretz party of two, MK Zvi Hauser, is also stepping out of the race.

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