Reclaiming the center

Yoaz Hendel, increasingly the media face of the political right, wants to take back the cause of peace and human rights from the left – and the exclusivist claim to Zionism and patriotism from the right

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

Yoaz Hendel (photo credit: courtesy the Institute for Zionist Strategies)
Yoaz Hendel (photo credit: courtesy the Institute for Zionist Strategies)

Two men stand glaring at each other in a landscape of rock-strewn rolling desert hills. Behind them stretches a neglected expanse of ramshackle Bedouin shanties, the precariousness of the dwellings belying the worrying permanence of the problem.

The photograph is a staged scene that makes up the cover for last weekend’s Yedioth Ahronoth weekend supplement, likely the best-selling piece of journalistic real estate in Israel.

The two men stand above a two-word headline — “Firing Range.” In a smaller font, the subheadline takes the conceit of the high noon standoff even further. “Yigal Sarna attacks from the left, Yoaz Hendel charges from the right; two Shabbat supplement columnists went together to the battleground where the future of the Bedouin is being decided; no love was lost between them.”

Sarna and Hendel, left and right, a polemic cage match between two well-known representatives of the two poles of Israeli politics.

The choice for the left was appropriate in a narrow, specific sense. Yigal Sarna, an award-winning reporter and commentator, has written for decades about Israel’s minorities and social peripheries. He is an expert in listening to the Bedouin and telling Israelis about their plight.

The second choice, on the right, was less obvious. Yoaz Hendel is undoubtedly a right-winger, having served as an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and today chairing the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning think-tank. But Hendel’s interest in the story of the Bedouin does not come from any focus on minority communities or social causes as such. His interest, the overarching theme of his voluminous writing and commentary, is Israel itself, its many identities, social fractures and shared future.

So it is characteristic of Hendel’s broader work that he begins his column with a resounding rejection of the very premise of the exercise: “The easiest thing to do is to pigeonhole people into recognizable patterns: right vs. left, religious vs. secular. Are you for or against? The topic doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you play the part, and fill another column. That’s the way of the world. That’s the way of a newspaper.”

His treatment of the Bedouin, too, eschews the usual topics of discussion — the legal or economic aspects of resettlement, the tribulations of the Bedouin “dispersion” or even the favored right-wing talking points about Jewish demographics. Instead, his column concerns itself with questions of Bedouin identity, contrasting a young Bedouin woman, an attorney in a middle-class neighborhood of Beersheba, who says she owes her allegiance to the Palestinian national cause, and a Bedouin tribal leader who serves as an officer in the IDF and prides himself on attracting Jewish-owned factories to his village, where they provide jobs for his community.

Integration and identity, sovereignty and law enforcement; these are the essential questions of the Bedouin crisis, Hendel believes.

“The debate over the Bedouin is a debate about the nature of Israel,” between the resisting Palestinian nationalist and the integrationist IDF officer, he writes.

Yoaz Hendel in 2010 (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)
Yoaz Hendel in 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)

Hendel’s unique voice — more on this later — grew out of this habit of framing the question differently. Left-wingers, he believes, are too quick to surrender both their particularism and self-criticism; right-wingers are too eager to cling to unexamined tropes and unthinking maximalist positions. The Jewish people’s future as a nation will depend on Israeli society’s ability to resist these centrifugal forces pulling it apart.

To help it do that, Hendel has taken a keen interest in those centrifugal forces.

“Jewish kingdoms have a tendency to collapse not from external pressure but from internal pressure,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent conversation. “The second Jewish kingdom [under the Hasmoneans] stood for 80 years.” Israel, he notes, is already 65.

A ubiquitous presence

Hendel is one of the most active and visible of Israel’s political journalists. He is a ubiquitous presence in Israeli media, with a weekly column in the bestselling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, a talk show on the country’s most popular television network, Channel 2, and another on its most popular radio station, Army Radio. He is a popular guest commentator on Nissim Mishal’s evening political broadcast and a sought-after panelist on countless television debates. He may be the most widely-read right-wing voice in the country.

“Yoaz has an influential and unique voice in Israeli mainstream media, a voice that is not heard that often,” says Yaakov Katz, a former Jerusalem Post military correspondent who coauthored a book on the Iranian nuclear crisis with Hendel.

Slim, talkative and earnest, Hendel doesn’t seem to fit his resume. He served for years as an elite Flotilla 13 naval commando, and then for several years in undisclosed operational roles in the defense establishment. He holds the rank of major in the IDF reserves. He rarely adds the appellation “Dr.” to his name, so his readers are unaware that he holds a PhD in Hellenistic and Roman-era guerrilla warfare and intelligence gathering, including in the militaries of the Hasmonean Jewish kings commemorated on Hanukkah. And he rarely speaks of his service at the prime minister’s side, a relationship that imploded after Hendel turned to prosecutors over sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by a member of the prime minister’s inner circle against a subordinate, an act that led to the sacking of the senior official — and a falling out between Hendel and Netanyahu’s closest aides.

But Hendel has no regrets over the episode, which briefly put all the premier’s inner circle on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

His latest passion, which he tackles with the same energy evident in his military record and his media presence, is the Jerusalem-based Institute for Zionist Strategies. Since taking over as chairman in May 2012, Yoaz has shifted its focus to a complex, assertive effort at undermining the assumptions of Israel’s current political debate.

Breaking the monopolies

“If there’s one thing you need to know about Yoaz, it’s that he breaks up monopolies,” an influential journalist said of him recently. “He wants to break up the religious monopoly of the rabbinate, the left’s monopoly on human rights, the right’s monopoly on Zionism.”

It’s a comment that summarizes succinctly Hendel’s political mission.

“The IZS tries to turn the State of Israel into both a more Jewish and a more democratic country,” Hendel explains, riffing off the common assertion that there is a tension between the two.

“We’re unflinchingly nationalistic. We have no doubts about our identity, even in a world that doubts the right of a Jewish state to be Jewish,” Hendel says.

“We believe the state was born primarily to be a home for the Jewish people, but at the same time we strive to make it more democratic.”

Democracy is not optional, he insists. “Jews have never lived in peace with each other without an external law.” Democracy is that set of rules required for Jews to live together.

And not only Jews. Hendel recalls a moment earlier this year when Likud MK Miri Regev called the growing community of African refugees and migrants in south Tel Aviv a “cancer.”

“I was ashamed to the depths of my soul when Regev said that,” he recalls, “just as I am over ‘price tags,’” a reference to vandalism and physical assaults by Jewish extremists against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs intended as supposed revenge attacks for Palestinian terrorism or Israeli government moves deemed damaging to the settlements.

“The Zionist movement can’t be built on the denial of the other. My purpose isn’t just to teach the world [Israel’s side of the story], but to teach the Israeli as well, to teach parts of the left that not every statement that ‘smells’ nationalistic signals the end of democracy, and to teach the right that a national identity can’t be built on hate.”

Hendel aims ‘to teach parts of the left that not every statement that smells nationalistic signals the end of democracy, and to teach the right that a national identity can’t be built on hate’

One of Hendel’s first major steps when he took over the chairmanship of the institute was to establish “Blue and White Human Rights,” a group of self-identified right-wing activists who perform actions usually considered the sole purview of the far left, such as standing at roadblocks in the West Bank to ensure that IDF soldiers perform their duties according to the rules of the army, Israeli law and international norms.

The effort “comes from a simple premise: those who claim sovereignty in this land have moral obligations,” Hendel says. “Sovereignty is not only a right, but a responsibility. That has always been true, and will always be true. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to rise up and fight against those who come to kill us, but when we’re not fighting we are obligated to guarantee equality for the minority in our midst.”

The left’s “monopoly on human rights” has been damaging for Israel because it has given credence to the idea, not least on the right itself, that the right is somehow less responsible for or less interested in human rights, he argues.

“We were raised on Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin — the same Jabotinsky who said every man is a king, and the Begin who fought for minorities’ rights. We say that morality doesn’t belong to anyone. If anything, morality is on our side more than theirs, because some of the human rights organizations use human rights discourse for political ends, to oppose Israel’s existence. We deal with human rights without making them dependent on narrow politics.”

Yoaz Hendel (photo credit: courtesy of the Institute for Zionist Strategies)
Yoaz Hendel (photo credit: courtesy the Institute for Zionist Strategies)

Blue and White Human Rights has faced resistance on the right. It has tried but failed to win the support of settler leaders. But it has also won some victories, bringing right-wing and even far-right leaders, including Jewish Home’s Knesset faction chair Ayelet Shaked, to join the activists on their visits to checkpoints and, Hendel says, getting them to take pride and ownership in the idea that “human rights” are their responsibility as much as anyone’s.


Most observers of Israeli politics believe the Israeli right is a triumphant political force that has ruled the country for the better part of the last two decades and faces a fractured, confused opponent on the left.

But Hendel refuses to celebrate. The right, he argues, has failed Israel. Its electoral victories are not a function of its political message. In fact, he worries, the Israeli right barely has a political message.

“What stronger proof do you need” of the crisis on the right “than the last election? Likud got 20 mandates. If tomorrow morning Yisrael Beytenu leaves [the shared Likud-Beytenu list of 31 seats], Likud ends up with just one seat more than Yesh Atid [at 19]. There were days when Likud had 46.”

As he seeks to break the left’s monopoly on human rights, Hendel devotes perhaps even more effort to liberating what he calls the “paralyzed” discourse on the right when it comes to the Palestinians.

The abysmal electoral failure of the left over the past two decades has created a strange mirror effect on the right. Since the right appears to be unable to lose an election, “it feels no need to speak to the mainstream or the center.”

Sans the pressure to appeal to an electorally decisive center, Likud’s institutions are filling with ideologues, at times even extremist ones “who don’t even represent the majority of the settlers,” and Likud gets pushed farther and farther from compromise or political relevance, he argues.

“The Israeli public instinctively knows how to live with complexity, with Arabs who are Israeli citizens and also Arabs in surrounding countries who are our enemies. The public knows how to keep the state Jewish while preserving its secularism. The majority of the public is part of the consensus that wants to keep things in balance. Those who are outside this consensus want a state that is only Jewish or only democratic.”

‘The majority of the public is part of the consensus that wants to keep things in balance. Those who are outside this consensus want a state that is only Jewish or only democratic’

“I don’t want to see Likud fail to form the government” in an upcoming election, Hendel insists, “but I also want Likud to stay in the Israeli mainstream. Without the liberal nationalist voice, without the appeal to the Israeli mainstream, which is patriotic but liberal, wants peace but understands its limits, Likud will turn into Jewish Home,” its more hawkish coalition partner.

‘We have to decide’

“Unlike others on the right, I think the status quo is damaging to Israel. We have to start finding our own answers as to how things should develop.” Instead, he says, the right has allowed itself to be dragged along by events.

“There’s a strange dissonance. On the left there are those who won’t acknowledge that two states for two people can’t happen at this time, since the Palestinian side lacks the governance to make that solution possible.”

But the right has its own flights of fancy. “Then there’s the right that says, ‘Let’s develop all of Judea and Samaria [the Hebrew name for the West Bank] because we believe the land is ours. That’s a disaster for Israel, to annex two million Palestinians and find 30 more Hanin Zoabis in the Knesset” — a reference to the Palestinian nationalist MK who famously participated in the 2010 Turkish flotilla to Gaza.

“If you annex a territory you have to give those you are annexing full civil rights and equality.” To do so with the West Bank’s Palestinians “would be a catastrophe for Israel,” Hendel says.

Instead, the right must make decisions, prioritize, surrender some things in favor of others — that is, lead.

“Look at the territory” of the West Bank, Hendel begins. “Forty percent belongs to the PA, 12% is settlement blocs that are pretty much a consensus among the Israeli public, with a few thousand Palestinians living among the vast majority of settlers, over a quarter million. And then there is the intermediate territory, about 48% [of the West Bank] on which about 100,000 Palestinians and 100,000 Israelis live. I think you can annex the 12%, make the 40% Palestine, and define the in-between territory as disputed.”

Or, in other words, “shrink the problem.”

Indeed, Hendel says, no small part of the final agreement is already implemented in an interim fashion. “The PA is already a kind of disarmed state. They have a flag, an anthem, an armed [police] force. These are key indicators of statehood.”

The important thing is to “move forward to change the status quo.”

Hendel is under no illusions that the Palestinians can deliver a peace agreement, he says. “I don’t have even the slightest belief that it is possible to seal the deal. The gap is too great between a society built on freedom and one that nurses hatred.”

Yet at the same time, large parts of the Israeli right must abandon their preference for monosyllabic rejectionism in favor of active policymaking.

‘If the left has gone through a certain awakening because the prophetic vision of peace didn’t come to fruition, the view on the right has gone through a similar sobering process’

“Over the past 46 years, we’ve been unable to express what we want, and we’ve had terrible trouble explaining to the world what we want.” For instance, Israel should “stop giving the world the illusion that [Jerusalem neighborhood] Har Hotzvim or [the settlement bloc] Gush Etzion are up for negotiation. From my perspective we can annex them yesterday. Why do we let the world live with the illusion we’ll give these up?”

At the same time, the right must acknowledge that “if the left has gone through a certain awakening because the prophetic vision of peace didn’t come to fruition, the view on the right has gone through a similar sobering process, evidenced by Netanyahu’s talk about two states for two peoples. The vision of Greater Israel has shriveled. No Jew lives in Ramallah or any other part of the 40% of the West Bank controlled by the PA.”

A Jewish state for all Jews

Hendel’s vision for IZS, and for the center-right as a whole, is to provide answers not only to the Palestinian questions, but to the Jewish ones as well. He is one of only a few Israeli public intellectuals who have begun to think systematically about the significance of the Israel-Diaspora relationship for Israel’s future.

In November, after attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Jerusalem, he called in his Yedioth Ahronoth column for Israel to take a more explicit role in the future of American Jewry. After seven decades of American Jewish donations to Israel, “American Jewry needs a donation from the State of Israel to preserve its Jewish identity. The arguments over halachic details” on issues such as conversion and marriage, “while half of American Jews are disappearing, constitutes stupidity disguised as religion. There are solutions that will allow the State of Israel to incorporate into itself all streams and all approaches.”

The call to give back is no mere paternalistic vision of Israel helping an embattled Diaspora. In the last paragraph of the piece, Hendel explains to Israelis that before the Jewish state can reach out to Diaspora Jews, it must fix its own religious institutions that have done so much to mar the relationship.

“The state-sponsored religious institutions’ inflexibility toward other Jews is a tragedy which only history can judge. We cannot expect the religious establishment to change its ways, as its problems are fundamental. It is rotten to the core. But one can and should expect the Jewish state to come to its senses. If the religious institutions impose difficulties, a way must be found around them. Judaism is more important than its institutions.”

The political debate among right-wing leaders is in some ways shrinking and crystallizing around maximalist positions. Some of Likud’s once-esteemed and avowedly liberal “princes,” including former ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, were sidelined by the rise of a  hawkish young guard that sets the tone within the party — even if it has yet to rise high enough to actually set policy.

But outside the party institutions, among activists and columnists, in the burgeoning world of right-wing think tanks, a new sensibility is taking hold, one that rejects the simple division between left and right, between nationalism and liberalism.

Hendel is working to make the institute he leads the vanguard of that new awareness: “There are leaders who lead and leaders who follow,” he says. “The job of IZS is to lead the national Israeli discourse, to be a clear voice about the connection between Judaism and democracy and nationalism.”

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