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Naftali Bennett: An Israeli kingmaker rises again

Naftali Bennett, then Israel's defence minister, listens to PM Benjamin Netanyahu during a November 2019 visit to an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights.
Naftali Bennett, then Israel's defence minister, listens to PM Benjamin Netanyahu during a November 2019 visit to an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights. © Atef Safadi, REUTERS

Israeli nationalist hardliner Naftali Bennett’s latest announcement that he would join a governing coalition that could end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule has put the multimillionaire businessman-turned-politician in a position to punch above his weight as he eyes his country’s top job.

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It was another night of high political drama in a nation growing weary of impasses, repeat elections, failed coalition-building efforts and deep dives into the complex arithmetic of parliamentary seats and power sharing.

On Sunday evening, Bennett, head of an alliance of right-wing parties, took to the airwaves in yet another display of his critical role of political kingmaker. The address from the Knesset, was announced shortly after the alliance, Yamina (Rightwards in Hebrew), wrapped up a meeting to discuss his latest political plan.

Shortly after 8pm local time, with much of the Israeli media already reporting the news, Bennett began his primetime televised address.

“I am announcing today that it is my intention to work with all my strength to form a national unity government with my friend, Yair Lapid,” he said.

By putting his chips on centrist opposition leader Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), Bennett was effectively announcing his intention to bring an end to Netanyahu’s 12-year rule, the longest in Israeli history.

Bennett’s decision to join the coalition for change – a newly cobbled collection of parties spanning the political spectrum, was a bid to “rescue the country from its tailspin and put Israel back on course,” he explained.

“There was a great deal of almost celebration when this announcement was made that this small right-wing party was going to be part of the coalition for change,” explained FRANCE 24’s Irris Makler, reporting from Jerusalem.

But the 49-year-old Israeli politician was also turning against his former boss, Netanyahu, after having served the prime minister in various capacities over the past 15 years, from his role as Netanyahu's chief of staff to defence minister.

Netanyahu's furious response to Bennett's announcement on Sunday, when the prime minister accused the Yamina leader of "misleading" the public and instigating "the fraud of the century" by denying voters a right-wing government, was a measure of the personal and professional rancour between the two men. 

Son of Jewish American immigrants becomes a multimillionaire

A native of the Israeli coastal city of Haifa and a Hebrew University of Jerusalem law graduate, Bennett, the son of Jewish American immigrants, might never have entered politics.

He became a multimillionaire after selling his cybersecurity company Cyota for $145 million (€123m) in 2005 and could have spent the rest of his life "drinking cocktails in the Caribbean", as he likes to say. But his involvement in the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon convinced him to enter politics, the former Israeli soldier has told reporters.

A former major in the Maglan unit, one of the pillars of the Israeli army's special forces, Bennett took the plunge and joined the then opposition party, Likud, where he served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008. But his political career really took off in 2012, when he joined and managed to lead the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, which won 12 seats in parliament a year later.

It was a political rise that would propel him into the ranks of the main actors of the Israeli right, but Bennett was always in the shadow of Netanyahu, whom he joined several times in governing coalitions, in exchange for ministerial portfolios, including economy and religious affairs minister in 2013, education minister in 2015 and defence minister from 2019 to 2020.

Firmly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state which, he claims, "will become in the long term another terrorist state like Gaza", Bennett is a vocal supporter of the expansion of West Bank Jewish settlements, where a large portion of his electoral base is located.

Bennett describes himself as more to the right than Netanyahu and appears to relish baiting Palestinians and the left with incendiary remarks such as his shocking, “I’ve killed a lot of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that” comment, which made headlines in 2013. Israeli Labour politicians have not minced their words about him either, with former prime minister Ehud Barak calling him a “clown” who leads a “delusional, nationalist” party that has a “whiff of fascism and corruption”.

Bennett today leads Yamina alongside Ayelet Shaked, who describes herself as a secular politician in a movement composed of small right-wing parties that advocate economic ultra-liberalism, mixing lower taxes and drastic cuts in public spending with a hard line against Iran and the annexation of nearly two-thirds of the occupied West Bank.

"Naftali Bennett broke into politics in the movement of what is called religious Zionism, but he has broadened his spectrum in the right over the years," Alain Dieckhoff, director of the Centre for International Studies at the Paris-based Sciences-Po university, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“This is what led him to head Yamina, which is a somewhat mixed movement with a religious Zionist base and at the same time has a somewhat more secular dimension, represented by Ayelet Shaked."

Turning his back on Netanyahu

An Orthodox religious man who grew up in a secular family, Bennett does not deny sharing ideological affinities with Netanyahu even if the two men do not have warm personal relations and never miss the opportunity to rail against each other on the campaign trail.

"Naftali Bennett, who has embraced a rather strict religious practice while being extremely modern in style, is at the head of the party that has spearheaded settlement expansion and he remains 'Netanyahu-compatible'," Frédéric Encel, a Middle East expert at Sciences Po, in an interview with FRANCE 24 before Sunday’s dramatic announcement.

Bennett also stood out from other political actors by granting Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt on the three corruption cases the Israeli premier is currently facing, maintaining that justice should take its course while other politicians have called for the Likud leader’s withdrawal from the political scene until he is cleared by the courts.

It was a way to spare a rival with whom he could once again govern, biding his time until he achieves his self-proclaimed goal of becoming prime minister of Israel.

"His profile as a religious leader is an obstacle to his personal ambitions, because the fact is that in Israel, to date, there has never been a prime minister who clearly identified himself as religious," said Dieckhoff.

Under the coalition agreement hammered on Sunday, Bennett would get a first shot at the prime minister’s post, followed by Lapid, even though the latter’s Yesh Atid party came second in the March 23 poll, winning 17 seats – 11 more than Yamina’s six.

It’s a compromise that reflects Israel’s rightward shift in recent years and if the latest coalition succeeds in forming a government, Bennett would bear the responsibility of appeasing the right-wing base incensed over the multimillionaire-turned-politician’s sellout, as they see it, to “leftist traitors”.

This article has been translated and updated from the original in French.

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