Yoaz Hendel, former advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, speaks during a rally against the corruption of the government at Zion Square in Jerusalem on December 23, 2017. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90
Yoaz Hendel, former advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, speaks during a rally against the corruption of the government at Zion Square in Jerusalem on December 23, 2017. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90
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Israel’s emerging ‘liberal nationalist’ figure

JNS sits down with Dr. Yoaz Hendel, a former director of public diplomacy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss his perspective on politics, the prime minister and the future of Israel.

The crowd in Jerusalem’s Zion Square is civil as protesters hold up signs decrying alleged government corruption. Standing on the stage, Dr. Yoaz Hendel, with his trademark tussled hair, addresses the crowd.

Hendel is a well-known Israeli journalist who served in the elite IDF naval commando unit. He has a doctorate in military history and writes a regular column for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

He also serves as director of the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS), a conservative think tank based in Jerusalem. He draws his ideology, which can be defined as “liberal nationalism,” from the legacies of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

“Israel as a national state is part of my identity, many aspects of which are derived from Jabotinsky and Begin,” Hendel said in an interview with JNS. “Unfortunately many people are not familiar with Israeli history and don’t realize that it was Jabotinsky who was the voice of liberalism and it was Begin who fought for human rights in the ’50s.”

He continued, “We believe that Zionism is still the main goal of our generation. We are neo-conservatives, coming from a patriotic position. At the same time, we understand that without democracy and liberalism, we will not be able to maintain this miracle that is the state of Israel.”

Decrying what he says is the perceived notion on both the right and left that they have a monopoly on certain issues, Hendel emphasized, “Zionism doesn’t belong to the right and human rights doesn’t belong to the left.”

To demonstrate this, he brings right-wing activists to Israeli checkpoints to monitor the soldiers and ensure they follow Israeli as well as international laws.

“My goal,” he said, “besides appealing to people abroad, is to speak to my own people here in Israel and educate them. What we are trying to do at [IZS] is break these monopolies.”

On his rally

Hendel said he is worried about how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is responding to corruption allegations and for this reason, he organized the Jerusalem rally in December.

As prime minister, Netanyahu should be expressing support for the state institutions, including the police and the courts. Instead, Hendel asserted, Netanyahu is creating the idea that everyone is against him. “It can’t be that a suspect can attack the investigators or the courts,” he said.

“The last two years have me worried,” Hendel lamented. “What started with criticism of the army’s handling of the Elor Azaria affair (regarding an IDF soldier found guilty of killing a terrorist while he was already incapacitated on the ground) has now turned to criticism of the police and the courts with regard to the three corruption cases involving the prime minister. People are starting to relate to the country and its institutions as if it isn’t theirs.”

Another reason Hendel organized his own rally is because he could not relate to the protests in Tel Aviv that have been calling for Netanyahu to be sent to prison. Hendel believes Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty and said he will wait for the courts to determine that.

To many, the protests appear to be about removing Netanyahu from power, guilty or not. Hendel suggested that while the demonstrations might appear to be only about corruption, “let’s not be naïve. The opposition is involved in these protests and is deepening the divide.”

On Netanyahu

As former director of communications and public diplomacy for Netanyahu, Hendel has seen the prime minister’s bureau from within.

Ideologically, Hendel said he is close to Netanyahu in terms of economy and security. But in terms of how he is running the “tribal” issue—the divide between American Jewry and the Israeli rabbinate, for instance—and the discussion surrounding it, he disagrees.

“Netanyahu is doing a lot of damage,” he said.

Hendel said his biggest worry is internal discord among Jews, which has already led to division here in the past: the ancient Jewish states of Israel and Judah.

On entering politics

The Israeli media is full of speculation over the possibility of a governing coalition breakup and looming elections, and while there has been some talk of Hendel going into politics, he dismissed the idea. Hendel believes he can do more for the country from outside the government rather than serving it from within the Knesset. “I’ve been offered positions with [Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor] Lieberman, with [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett. I have no shortage of offers. I want to be able to say what I want and I can only do that from the outside,” he said.

On the Palestinians

Decidedly against the continuation of the failed peace process, Hendel conceded he accepts “the vision of Netanyahu, at least the way I see it.”

Hendel predicts that the Palestinians will ultimately gain maximum political independence, but minimum security independence. They would have a “state minus” or “autonomy plus,” without an army and without a border with Jordan—a situation that the current Israeli government views as too risky.

On the future of Israel

Hendel bemoaned the lack of discourse on the future and vision of Israel due to the insecure political arena in the country. “Before we define borders,” Hendel said, “we need to define our character—who we are, what we are. And what we are is a national state—a liberal and democratic one.”

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