Who is Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister?

Who is Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister?


Naftali Bennett, who was sworn in as Israel’s new Prime Minister on Sunday, embodies many of the contradictions that make up the 73-year-old nation. He is a religious Jew who has made millions in the mostly secular high-tech sector; a pioneer of the settlement movement who lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv; a former ally of Benjamin Netanyahu who teamed up with centrist and left parties to end his 12-year rule.

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Naftali Bennett, who was sworn in as Israel’s new Prime Minister on Sunday, embodies many of the contradictions that make up the 73-year-old nation. He is a religious Jew who has made millions in the mostly secular high-tech sector; a pioneer of the settlement movement who lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv; a former ally of Benjamin Netanyahu who teamed up with centrist and left parties to end his 12-year rule.

His ultra-nationalist Yamina party won only seven seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March elections, the fourth such vote in two years. But by refusing to sign up to Netanyahu or his adversaries, Bennett positioned himself as the kingmaker. Even after a member of his religious-nationalist party left him to protest the new coalition agreement, he ended up with the crown.

AN ULTRANATIONALIST WITH A MODERATE COALITION

Bennett has long positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu. But it is severely constrained by its sluggish coalition, which has a slim majority in parliament and includes parties from the right, left and center.

He opposes Palestinian independence and strongly supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians and much of the international community see as a major obstacle to peace.

Bennett sharply criticized Netanyahu after the Prime Minister agreed to slow down settlement construction under pressure from President Barack Obama, who tried to revive the peace process early in his first term.

He briefly chaired the Yesha West Bank Settlers Council before joining the Knesset in 2013. Bennett later served as Cabinet Secretary for Diaspora Affairs, Education and Defense in various Netanyahu-led governments.

“He’s a right-wing leader, a security hardliner, but at the same time very pragmatic,” said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, who has known Bennett for decades and served with him in the military.

He expects Bennett to work with other factions to find common ground while seeking support and legitimacy as a national leader.

Rivalry with NETANYAHU

The 49-year-old father of four shares Netanyahu’s Hawkish approach to the Middle East conflict, but the two have had strained relationships over the years. Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years, but they parted ways following a mysterious dispute that Israeli media linked with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who is widely influencing her husband’s inner circle.

Bennett fought as a right-wing fan ahead of the March elections, signing a pledge on national television that he would never allow Yair Lid, a centrist and main rival of Netanyahu, to become prime minister. But when it became clear that Netanyahu could not form a government coalition, Bennett did just that and agreed to serve as prime minister for two years before handing over power to Lid, the architects of the new coalition.

Netanyahu’s supporters have branded Bennett a traitor, saying he cheated voters. Bennett has defended his decision as a pragmatic move aimed at unifying the country and avoiding the fifth round of voting.

A GENERATIONAL CHANGE

Bennett, father of four and a modern Orthodox Jew, will be Israel’s first prime minister to regularly wear a kippah, the skull worn by attentive Jews. He lives in the upscale Raanana suburb of Tel Aviv and not in the settlements he campaigns for.

Bennett began life with his American-born parents in Haifa, then shuttled his family between North America and Israel, military service, law school, and the private sector. Meanwhile, he has curated a personality who is modern, religious, and nationalist at the same time.

After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal Command Unit, Bennett attended Hebrew University Law School. In 1999 he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company that was sold to US-based RSA Security in 2005 for $ 145 million.

Bennett said the bitter experience of the 2006 Israeli war against Lebanese militant group Hezbollah drove him into politics. The months of war ended in vain, and Israel’s military and political leadership at the time was widely criticized for botched the campaign.

Bennett represents the third generation of Israeli leaders, after the founders and Netanyahu’s generation who grew up in the country’s tense early years, which were marked by repeated wars with Arab states.

He’s Israel 3.0, Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for Israel’s left-wing newspaper Haaretz, wrote in a recent profile of Bennett.

A Jewish nationalist, but not really dogmatic. A little religious, but certainly not pious. A military who prefers the convenience of civil city life and a high-tech entrepreneur who doesn’t want to make millions more. A supporter of the greater country of Israel, but not a settler. And he may not be a lifelong politician either.

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