How did Naftali Bennett go from New York City businessman to Israel’s choice for Prime Minister-designate in under two decades?
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at the Defense Ministry on February 25, 2020.(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Born in Haifa in 1972, Bennett is the son of American Jewish immigrants from California. He grew up in a secular homes but his family slowly became observant when he was a young child. He defines himself as Modern Orthodox today.
Bennett served as a company commander in elite IDF units Sayeret Matkal and Maglan and studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After obtaining his degree, he founded a hi-tech company and later spent several years in New York serving as its CEO Cyota, an anti-fraud software company. He later oversaw the sale of the company for $145 million in 2005. Bennett later repeated that feat, when another company he helped lead, Soluto, was sold in 2009 for $130 million.
Upon moving back to Israel, Bennett turned to politics and served as chief of staff under Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, from 2006-2008 when he fell out with Netanyahu’s wife Sara and was barred from the Likud Party.
Bennett then served as director-general of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization for the municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, between January 2010 and January 2012.
In November 2012, Bennett was elected head of the right-wing, religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi party. He led the party in the 2013 election to win 12 Knesset seats, a figure religious-Zionism’s party had not seen for 36 years. He served as Economy Minister, Religious Affairs Minister, and Diaspora Affairs Minister in the 19th Knesset.
Bennett entered the Knesset and surprised again, by creating an alliance with Yair Lapid, who won 19 seats with the party he had established the previous year, Yesh Atid.
The pair’s insistence that each of them be admitted into the government forced Netanyahu to take in Bennett who he had initially preferred to keep out of the coalition.
Bennett used the time to try and move beyond the image of a national-religious leader and to transcend religious politics to reach secular, centrist voters. After the election in 2015, he initially tried to secure the defense portfolio, which Netanyahu had promised him ahead of the vote but then pushed him to the become education minister, a traditional role for the national-religious party.
He used the Education Ministry to cultivate a post-sectarian identity, launching a flagship program to encourage high-school students to major in math and physics, arguing how important it was for Israel and how the education system was the engine for the nation’s tech industry.
While Bennett identifies as Modern Orthodox, issues of religious legislation were never his passion. His religious practice is also less strict than that of other observant politicians. Bennett, for example, shakes women’s hands, and his wife Gilat – originally from a secular family – does not cover her hair.
Following the massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Bennett attended a memorial ceremony there despite it being non-Orthodox, a move previously unthinkable in Israel’s religious parties.
Most significantly, Bennett supported wholeheartedly the plan to open a segment of the Western Wall for egalitarian and non-Orthodox prayers. The plan was later shelved due to ultra-Orthodox pressure, but Bennett’s religious moderation was made plain.
When an early election was called in December 2018, Bennett and his partner Ayelet Shaked formed the New Right party ahead of the April 2019 elections, but failed to clear the electoral threshold.
The New Right took a hard hit and Bennett began exploring a new future back in hi-tech as well as in Jewish Diaspora organizations. His longtime passion of improving Israeli public diplomacy was also something he discussed with close associates, looking at the possibility of establishing a new NGO to spearhead those efforts.
To his luck though, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition and Israel went to a new election, giving him and Shaked another chance. This time, the New Right merged with two other minor right-wing, national conservative parties under the name Yamina and Shaked became the leader. The party crossed the threshold but when Israel went to a third election, Bennett took over from Shaked as the party leader.
In November 2019, Bennett succeeded in forcing Netanyahu to appoint him defense minister in order to prevent him from joining Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White, who was trying at the time to form a coalition after the September 2019 election. Bennett served in that role during the beginning of the coronavirus crisis and spearheaded efforts to try and get the government to transfer responsibility over managing the pandemic to the IDF.
While others were slow to respond, Bennett went to work. He had the IDF supply the health system with technology and research, he initiated the usage of hotels as sanatoriums for corona patients, and he fought for the creation of a national diagnosis center that would perform 100,000 daily checkups.
It was a display of resourcefulness at a time when others seemed inert. Yet Netanyahu kept his defense minister at arm’s length, and also heeded the health system’s demand that it run the war on the plague, rather than the IDF, despite the army’s possession of the necessary resources and plans.
When Gantz established a unity government with Netanyahu In May 2020, Bennett refused to join and took Yamina to the opposition where he made a sharp turn against Netanyahu and began calling for the longtime prime minister to step down. Ahead of the March 2021 election, Bennett refused to declare which camp he belonged to — the pro-Netanyahu camp or anti-Netanyahu camp — leaving open the possibility that he would do what he is now doing, joining Lapid and other centrist and left-wing parties. Under his leadership the party won seven seats in the March 2021 election.
Bennett announced on 30 May that he would serve as prime minister in a broad unity government until August 2023, at which point Yesh Atid’s Lapid would take over.
Bennett will oversee a tough coalition to manage, that is fractured ideologically, composed of eight different parties and has the potential to break apart at any new crisis. Nevertheless, the government has clear goals — passing a two-year budget, providing ministries with the tools they need to work and doing everything it can to create quiet in the country.
Amotz Asa-El contributed to this article.