Naftali Bennett: Right-wing champion of settlers poised to be Israel’s PM

Leader of a party with just seven seats played key role in toppling former boss Netanyahu

 Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Photograph:   Ronen Zvulun/EPA

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/EPA

 

The morning after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, Naftali Bennett, the energetic leader of a relatively small, Israeli pro-settlement party, exulted before an audience of foreign reporters in Jerusalem, “The era of a Palestinian state is over!”

Now Bennett (49), a former high-tech entrepreneur who insists that there must never be a full-fledged Palestinian state and that Israel should annex much of the occupied West Bank, is poised to become Israel’s next prime minister, replacing Binyamin Netanyahu.

Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu often described as more right wing than the prime minister, is the independently wealthy son of American immigrants. He first entered the Israeli parliament eight years ago and is relatively unknown and inexperienced on the international stage, leaving much of the world – not to mention many Israelis – wondering what kind of leader he might be.

Shifting between seemingly contradictory alliances, he has been called a right-wing extremist, a pragmatist and an opportunist. But in a measure of his talents, he has now pulled off a feat that is extraordinary even by the perplexing standards of Israeli politics: He has manoeuvred himself into the top office even though his party, Yamina, won just seven of the 120 seats in the parliament.

He is religiously observant – he would be the first prime minister to wear a kipa – but he will head a governing coalition that is largely secular.

A canny and ambitious beneficiary of Israel’s prolonged political morass, Bennett leveraged his modest but pivotal electoral weight after the inconclusive March election, Israel’s fourth in two years. He entered coalition talks as a kingmaker, and emerged as the one wearing the crown.

In a career full of paradoxes, Bennett, once a top aide to Netanyahu (71), played a crucial role in toppling his former boss, Israel’s longest-serving leader. As a result, Netanyahu was brought down – for now, at least – not only by his long-time rivals on the centre and left of the political spectrum but also by someone considered even more hardline.

Binyamin Netanyahu: Accused his former aide of using “the same hollow slogans about hate and division”, and of “committing the fraud of the century”. Photograph: Sebastian Scheiner/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Binyamin Netanyahu: Accused his former aide of using “the same hollow slogans about hate and division”, and of “committing the fraud of the century”. Photograph: Sebastian Scheiner/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Bennett has long championed West Bank settlers and once led the council representing them, but he has never been a settler himself, and lives in Ra’anana, an affluent town in central Israel, with his wife and four children. He is religiously observant – he would be the first prime minister to wear a kipa – but he will head a governing coalition that is largely secular.

Extreme views

He is best known for views on settlements, annexation and Palestinian statehood that many on Israel’s left and centre – not to mention much of the world – consider not just wrong but dangerous. Yet his coalition spans Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relies on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party.

That coalition proposes to paper over its differences on Israeli-Palestinian relations by focusing on domestic matters. Bennett has explained his motives for teaming up with such ideological opposites as an act of last resort to end the political impasse that has paralysed Israel.

“The political crisis in Israel is unprecedented on a global level,” he said in a televised speech on Sunday. “We could end up with fifth, sixth, even 10th elections, dismantling the walls of the country, brick by brick, until our house falls in on us. Or we can stop the madness and take responsibility.”

People who know him describe Bennett as likable and tolerant behind closed doors, a pragmatist at heart, though how that private person would translate to governing remains to be seen.

Now Bennett faces the greatest challenge of his political career, trying to hold that unlikely coalition together, to vault from being a second-tier figure to a national leader, and to maintain relations with Israel’s most important ally, the United States. President Joe Biden has been cooler toward Netanyahu than Trump was.

“There will be, I think, a collective sigh of relief within the Biden administration that they have new, young Israeli blood to deal with,” said Martin S Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Bennett will be pressured by the settler right to deliver for them, Indyk said, but it appears that “he has already accepted that he won’t be able to pursue that agenda”.

He campaigned as the right-wing alternative to Netanyahu, who has held power for 12 years consecutively and 15 years overall, and is now standing trial on corruption charges. They have often differed more in tone than substance, as Bennett avoided the inflammatory language and long-running legal drama of his predecessor.

Aida Touma-Sliman, a lawmaker from the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, wrote on Twitter that Bennett would lead “a dangerous right-wing government”, one that would “remove Netanyahu and preserve his path”.

‘Fraud of the century’

After Bennett described Netanyahu on Sunday as a divisive and polarising force, Netanyahu accused his former aide of using “the same hollow slogans about hate and division”, and of “committing the fraud of the century”.

People who know him describe Bennett as likable and tolerant behind closed doors, a pragmatist at heart, though how that private person would translate to governing remains to be seen. “People think he’s a fanatic. He’s not,” said Ayelet Frish, an Israeli political consultant.

He then moved to New York and founded a software company that he later sold for $145 million, and served as chief executive of another company.

She said Bennett once told her that he had grown up in a home of “Woodstock parents”, surrounded by mostly secular culture, and noted his time in the largely secular high-tech business world.

Orit Galili-Zucker, a former strategic communications adviser to Netanyahu, said Bennett aimed “to present an alternative to Netanyahu’s toxic discourse”. In Bennett’s first campaign, in 2013, Netanyahu’s Likud party branded him as “a dangerous, messianic right-winger”, she said. Now Likud was calling him a “dangerous leftist”, she noted, for joining forces with opposition leader Yair Lapid to unseat Netanyahu.

Now Likud and its staunch ultra-Orthodox allies will be heading into the opposition. Under the new coalition’s government, Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first part of a four-year term, to be followed by the secular, centrist Lapid. By conceding the first turn in the rotation, Lapid smoothed the way for other right-wing politicians to join the anti-Netanyahu alliance.

Bennett represents a new generation in Israeli politics and would be the second-youngest prime minister in the country’s history; only Netanyahu, when he first came into the office a generation ago, was younger.

Software success

Born in Israel, Bennett spent parts of his childhood living in the United States and Canada. He served in the same Israeli army commando unit Netanyahu had. He then moved to New York and founded a software company that he later sold for $145 million, and served as chief executive of another company.

He has proposed granting the Palestinians “a sort of autonomy on steroids” in about 40 per cent of the West Bank, and gradually applying Israeli sovereignty in the rest of the territory – a move much of the world would consider illegal.

He has had a fraught relationship with Netanyahu since a stint as his chief of staff ended in acrimony in 2008. A sharp critic of some of Netanyahu’s policies, he nevertheless sat in several Netanyahu-led governments as a minister, as well as in the opposition. In late 2019, Netanyahu appointed him as defence minister to keep Bennett on his side at a time of political turmoil, and he served in that role for about six months.

Over the past decade, Bennett and his senior partner in Yamina, Ayelet Shaked, have run for office in an array of right-wing, pro-settlement parties with a dizzying series of name changes and allies. In 2013, when they were a pair of political newcomers, he formed what was seen as a surprising alliance with Lapid.

Bennett has often punched above his weight on security issues. On the eve of the 2014 Gaza war, he presciently raised the threat arising from tunnels dug by Hamas beneath the Gaza-Israel border and pressed for a plan of action to neutralise them.

Later that year, he wrote an uncompromising op-ed in the New York Times explaining his view that Israel could not allow the creation of a Palestinian state. He has proposed granting the Palestinians “a sort of autonomy on steroids” in about 40 per cent of the West Bank, and gradually applying Israeli sovereignty in the rest of the territory – a move much of the world would consider illegal.

The next year he wrote another op-ed forcefully condemning Jewish extremists who had stabbed participants at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem and burned three members of a Palestinian family to death in a West Bank village, denouncing the perpetrators as “terrorists”.

Radical factions

At times, Bennett and Shaked joined forces with more radical political factions in the religious Zionist camp who are heavily influenced by their rabbis. Running as the New Right party in the April 2019 election, without their more extreme partners, they failed to gain enough votes to enter parliament.

In the run-up to this year’s election, the pair tried to broaden their appeal to more mainstream Israelis, and had more success, gathering some support from disaffected former Netanyahu voters. Bennett has been pushing a programme for economic reform that he calls his “Singapore Plan”, supports curbing the powers of the judiciary and has criticized the present government’s handling of the pandemic.

After the election, neither the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties nor the anti-Netanyahu group could form a parliamentary majority without his party. Both sides courted him, offering him a chance to serve as prime minister in a rotation agreement. Bennett made it clear he would have preferred to join a right-wing government, but Netanyahu proved unable to form one. – New York Times

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