Naftali Bennett: Who is Israel’s new PM who ended Netanyahu’s 12-year grip on power?

Bennett, 49, is a father-of-four and Orthodox Jew who lives in the Tel Aviv

Joe Middleton
Monday 14 June 2021 10:10 BST
Naftali Bennett speaks during a special voting session on the formation of a new coalition government at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament
Naftali Bennett speaks during a special voting session on the formation of a new coalition government at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament (EPA)

Naftali Bennett was sworn in Sunday as Israel’s new prime minister, ending the 12-year reign of previous incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Bennett will lead a diverse coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties with little in common except for a desire to unseat Netanyahu, who was was prime minister since 2009, after a first term from 1996 to 1999.

Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a former television host, in 2023.

Mr Bennett’s Yamina Party only won seven seats in the 120-member Knesset in March elections, the fourth such vote in two years.

But by refusing to commit to Netanyahu or his opponents, he positioned himself as kingmaker and was able to form a surprising coalition and now leads the country.

Who is Naftali Bennett?

Mr Bennett is a father-of-four and a modern Orthodox Jew who lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana. He will be Israel’s first prime minister who regularly wears a kippa, the skullcap worn by observant Jews.

He began life with his American-born parents in Haifa, then bounced with his family between North America and Israel, military service, law school and the private sector.

After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Bennett went to law school at Hebrew University.

In 1999, he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company that was sold in 2005 to US-based RSA Security for $145m.

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

“A Jewish nationalist but not really dogmatic. A bit religious, but certainly not devout. A military man who prefers the comforts of civilian urban life and a high-tech entrepreneur who isn’t looking to make any more millions.

“A supporter of the Greater Land of Israel but not a settler. And he may well not be a lifelong politician either.”

What does he believe politically?

Mr Bennett has long positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu. But he will be severely constrained by his unwieldy coalition, which has only a narrow majority in parliament and includes parties from the right, left and centre.

It means that Mr Bennett is likely to focus mostly on domestic issues during his time as prime minister.

However in a speech to parliament prior to becoming leader he expressed opposition to US efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal.

He said: “Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”

Mr Bennett is opposed to 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.

The Palestinians have been largely unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Mr Bennett would pursue the same agenda as Netanyahu.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Mr Bennett entered the Knesset in 2013 and later served as cabinet minister of diaspora affairs, education and defence in various Netanyahu-led governments.

“He’s a right-wing leader, a security hard-liner, but at the same time very pragmatic,” said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, who has known Mr Bennett for decades.

What is his relationship with Netanyahu?

Mr Bennett shares Mr Netanyahu’s hawkish approach to the Middle East conflict, but the two have had tense relations over the years.

He served as Mr Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years, but they parted ways after a mysterious falling out that Israeli media linked to Mr Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who wields great influence over her husband’s inner circle.

Mr Bennett campaigned as a right-wing stalwart ahead of the March elections and signed a pledge on national TV saying he would never allow Yair Lapid, a centrist and Mr Netanyahu’s main rival, to become prime minister.

But when it became clear Mr Netanyahu was unable to form a ruling coalition, that’s exactly what Mr Bennett did, agreeing to serve as prime minister for two years before handing power to Mr Lapid, the architect of the new coalition.

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

Additional reporting by agencies

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