JERUSALEM – Naftali Bennett, a multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur who made a name in politics with hardline religious-nationalist rhetoric, could become Israel’s next prime minister.
On Wednesday, opposition leader Yair Lapid said he had succeeded in forming a coalition to end the rule of veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Bennett to serve first as prime minister in a rotation deal, before Lapid takes over in two years.
If the coalition is approved by Israel’s 120-member parliament, Bennett could oust his former ally and mentor Netanyahu.
Bennett, a 49-year-old former defence minister and special forces commando, leads the Yamina party, which has called for Israel to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
The son of US-born parents who speaks perfect American 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, and had served in several of the Likud leader’s governments.
But in recent years the two became increasingly opposed.
In the aftermath of 11 days of deadly fighting with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip last month, Bennett finally agreed to join centrist Lapid in a coalition to oust Netanyahu.
– Incendiary comments –
Bennett lives with his wife Galit 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 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 then took politics by storm in 2012 when he took 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 last year — 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.
Critics have accused Bennett of betraying his nationalist voters as he pursues a unity government with dovish Meretz and with support from the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam.
However, Bennett said he was on a mission to restore Israel’s governance and avoid a fifth election in little more than two years.
In a speech announcing his decision to join forces with Lapid, he referred to ancient Jewish history.
“Two thousand years ago, there was a Jewish state which fell here because of internal quarrels,” he said. “This will not happen again. Not on my watch.”