Naftali Bennett: Hard-right tech millionaire set to become Israeli PM

Naftali Bennett, a multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur who made his political name with hardline religious-nationalist rhetoric, will become Israel’s next prime minister if parliament approves a new government on Sunday.

The 120-member Knesset is due to vote on a coalition put together by centrist Yair Lapid with the aim of terminating veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 unbroken years at the helm.

The coalition deal would see Bennett, an estranged former protege of Netanyahu, serve first as prime minister in a rotation deal, before Lapid takes over after two years.

A 49-year-old former defence minister and one-time special forces commando, Bennett leads the right-wing Yamina party, which has called for Israel to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

If parliament green-lights the coalition, Bennett will be Israel’s first premier to lead an openly religious lifestyle, with his small skullcap known as a kippa fastened to his head.

The son of American-born parents who speaks perfect English, he is ultra-liberal on the economy and takes a hard line against Israel’s arch-foe, Iran.

He shares this ideology with Netanyahu, having served in several of the Likud leader’s governments.

But in recent years tensions between the two arose and intensified, with Netanyahu making little effort to hide his disdain for Bennett.

And in late May, two months after Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in two years, Bennett allied himself with Lapid, paving the way for the improbable eight-party coalition that parliament is now set to vote on.

Bennett lives with his wife Gilat and four children in the central city of Raanana.

He entered politics after selling his tech start-up for $145 million in 2005, and the next year became chief of staff to Netanyahu, who was then in the opposition.

After leaving Netanyahu’s office, Bennett in 2010 became head of the Yesha Council, which lobbies for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

He took politics by storm in 2012, taking charge of the hard-right Jewish Home party, which was facing annihilation.

He increased its parliamentary presence fourfold, while making headlines with a series of incendiary comments about Palestinians.

In 2013, he said Palestinian “terrorists should be killed, not released”.

He also argued that the West Bank was not under occupation because “there was never a Palestinian state here”, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be resolved but must be endured, like a piece of “shrapnel in the buttocks”.

Beyond holding the defence portfolio, Bennett served as Netanyahu’s economy minister and education minister.

He re-branded Jewish Home as the “New Right” party, before forging the Yamina (“Rightward”) bloc in 2018, and was part of Netanyahu’s coalition which collapsed the same year.

But he was not asked to join a unity government in May 2020 — a move seen as an expression of Netanyahu’s personal contempt towards him.

In 2020, in opposition and with the coronavirus pandemic raging, Bennett dampened his right-wing rhetoric to focus on the health crisis. He moved to broaden his appeal by releasing plans to contain Covid-19 and aid the economy.

Former supporters and critics have accused Bennett of betraying his nationalist voters by joining a fledgling coalition that includes dovish Meretz and support from the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam.

But Bennett has said he is on a mission to restore Israel’s governance and avoid a fifth election in little more than two years.

In an interview justifying his decision to join the “change” coalition, despite explicit campaign pledges to not be part of a government headed by or formed with Lapid, Bennett said that the good of the country trumped his word.

“The core promise of these elections was to extract Israel from chaos,” he told Channel 12 news.

“I chose what’s good for Israel,” he said.

While risking alienating his traditional right-wing base by breaking a campaign promise in his bid to take down Netanyahu, Bennett’s move could enable him to broaden his support in the long run.

“The chance to serve as prime minister is a huge opportunity for Bennett to present himself as prime ministerial material,” said Toby Greene, a political scientist at the Bar Ilan university near Tel Aviv.

Bennett could thus “present himself to Israeli mainstream as the natural successor to Netanyahu, as the candidate of the Right who has shown he can run the country,” Greene said

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