In April 2019, Naftali Bennett received an unpleasant surprise. As the votes were counted in Israel’s general election, it became clear that his New Right party had not passed the 3.25 per cent electoral threshold needed to stay in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Bennett had lost his seat, his new party had failed and his political career looked like it was over.
Two years, three more elections and a global pandemic later, Bennett is on the verge of ending Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. Barring a spectacular reversal, he is about to become Israel’s prime minister. He has found himself in the right place at the right time, heading (though not necessarily leading) an eclectic coalition of parties from the left, right and centre. He will be forming a national-unity government with Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Netanyahu was once Bennett’s mentor and patron; now he is about to be replaced by him.
Born in Haifa to American immigrant parents, Bennett, 49, grew up in an observant Jewish household. He wears a kippah, a Jewish skullcap, which stays on his bald head as if by magic (he uses stickers, reportedly). In its 73-year history, Israel has never had an observant Jew as prime minister.
Bennett was a member of an elite IDF Special Forces unit. In his time in the then-secret Maglan Reconnaissance Unit 212, he served behind enemy lines during the 1996 escalation between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon known as ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’, hunting Hezbollah teams that were firing rockets into Israel. After his military service, Bennett went into tech and became a multimillionaire when his venture was acquired by a security company.
In a sense, then, Bennett represents the modern Israeli dream: launch a start-up after your military service, build it up and get a big ‘exit’ when the company is bought. The usual next step would be to become a serial entrepreneur or venture capitalist. Bennett chose a different path, however. He became chief of staff to the then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two men were once close — Bennett’s autobiography has an entire chapter praising Netanyahu — but he departed suddenly in 2008. Persistent rumours claimed he had a dramatic falling-out with Netanyahu’s influential wife, Sara. The precise details, however, have always been kept private. Bennett once joked: ‘Sara and I went through a terrorism course together.’
During his time with Netanyahu, Bennett made his most enduring political alliance with the young right-winger Ayelet Shaked, who served as Netanyahu’s office director from 2006 to 2008. They made an unlikely pair: a moderately religious man and secular woman. But they shared a vision of a younger, fresher right-wing politics that could bridge the secular-religious divide that permeates Israeli society.
They also both saw themselves as future prime ministers. Together, they quit Netanyahu’s Likud, or National Liberal Movement, and took over Israel’s moribund National Religious party, rebranding it as ‘Jewish Home’ — and making it the most talked-about party ahead of the 2013 election.
One of Bennett’s more eye-catching policies was the ‘Bennett Plan’ for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It involved annexing the majority of the West Bank, including all Israeli settlements but also most of the uninhabited land too, leaving the Palestinian towns in permanent limbo. His plan was attacked by the Israeli left and was also controversial on the right because it wasn’t full annexation. Interestingly, Donald Trump’s 2020 peace plan looked very similar to the Bennett Plan.
When the 2013 polling day came, however, he flopped. This would become a pattern for Bennett: high expectations and a strong showing in opinion polls, followed by disappointing results at the ballot.
This was also when Bennett and Lapid struck up their unlikely left-right partnership. The two men agreed to enter coalition negotiations with Likud as a single bloc, a ‘pact of brothers’. As part of the deal, Bennett was given several relatively junior ministerial roles. Shaked became justice minister, a right-wing prize. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties were excluded from the government altogether. Netanyahu, effectively held hostage in his own cabinet, was furious. His anger at Bennett has simmered ever since.
In the years that followed, Bennett and Netanyahu clashed through various coalition governments. Eventually, when a new election was called in 2019, Bennett and Shaked quit the Jewish Home party and founded a right-wing secular-religious party called the New Right, positioned to the right of Likud.
After years of failure, and the coronavirus pandemic, Bennett chose to join the opposition rather than accept a relatively junior role in an emergency coalition. Here he reinvented himself, launching a ‘citizens’ coronavirus cabinet’ and publishing long position papers with plans for tackling the virus.
Some of these plans (like testing for travellers) were excellent in retrospect, and some (like faster reopening in spring 2020) were terrible. But all his proposals shared one virtue: they were extremely popular. When the emergency coalition fell apart and Israel headed to its fourth election in two years, Bennett was riding high again. But again his party, now known as Yemina, underperformed, winning just seven seats.
Initially, Bennett supported Netanyahu’s attempt to build a coalition. But seeing no alternative path to forming a government, he then decided to revive his old partnership with Yair Lapid once it became apparent that Netanyahu could not build a coalition.
Bennett insisted that he lead this rainbow coalition of nationalists, left-wingers and Arabs. Lapid agreed to allow Bennett to be prime minister for two years. After that, Lapid in theory will replace Bennett. But Lapid is wise enough to know two years is a lifetime in politics — particularly Israeli politics.
Still, who knows for sure if this government will ever really take charge? The pressure placed on Bennett and his colleagues by Netanyahu and his supporters currently is immense. There have been protests outside his home chanting ‘traitor’, even death threats. One of the Yemina members has already defected.
If it is seated, the coalition will be Israel’s broadest so far. It will have a majority of only one seat in the Knesset. An enormous range of divisive issues, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to economic liberalisation, will have to be shelved.
Bennett may be more right-wing, more gung-ho and more hardline than Netanyahu, but he won’t be in any position to advance his radical agenda.
The spectre of Benjamin Netanyahu could also haunt this government. ‘Bibi’ is a natural opposition leader, and is planning to stick around in the hope that the incoming government collapses, which would prompt a new election and his possible return.
But Netanyahu might not have the chance: he could soon face a challenge from within his own party. One senior Likud figure has been quoted as saying: ‘Netanyahu is the glue behind the incoming government. Only without him will we be able to easily dissolve it.’ Without Netanyahu, in other words, another Likud leader could find it easier to form an alternative government.
Bennett was once the subject of Chuck Norris-style memes about how tough he is. Over the years, he lost that image as Netanyahu battered, bruised and humiliated him in the political arena. Now he could be in the prime minister’s chair within days. The question is for how long.