Until recently, Naftali Bennett, the hard-charging, high-tech millionaire on the cusp of becoming Israel’s prime minister, was perhaps best known for his inflammatory statements and extreme positions on the Palestinian conflict.
He has vowed to do “everything” in his power to block Palestinian statehood, he supports annexing 60% of the West Bank, and he once espoused a “shoot to kill” policy on the Gaza border.
Now, Bennett is preparing to succeed his one-time mentor Benjamin Netanyahu – if Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, votes to confirm the new coalition government he brokered with centrist Yair Lapid. Under their agreement, Bennett will serve as prime minister for the next two years and then Lapid will take the position for the following two.
Bennett’s seemingly meteoric rise, from the leader of a small religious faction in the Knesset to Israel’s most powerful office, has some casting him as a savvy negotiator and others as a traitor and “wicked liar.”
One thing most agree on: “His room to maneuver is going to be pretty narrow,” says Michael Koplow, policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Bennett and Lapid have agreed not to pursue contentious policies that could split their fragile, multiparty alliance. They said they plan to focus mostly on domestic priorities.
Bennett was born in the Israeli city of Haifa to American parents who immigrated to Israel from California.
Like Netanyahu, Bennett lived and studied in the United States in his youth, perfecting his English skills and his understanding of Israel’s closest ally. When it came time to enlist in the military, Bennett joined the same elite unit that Netanyahu had been in years before him – the prestigious Sayeret Matkal unit.
Bennett moved to New York with his wife in the early 2000s and eventually made a fortune selling his software firm to a U.S.-based company, RSA security, for $145 million.
After their adventure in the U.S., Bennett and his wife Gilat moved back to Israel, where he launched his political career in 2006, serving as chief of staff for Netanyahu, who was then leader of the opposition.
“He’s very much in the Netanyahu mold,” said Osamah Khalil, a historian of U.S. foreign relations and the modern Middle East at Syracuse University.
Bennett left that position right before Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister in 2009, becoming the director-general for the Yesha Council – an umbrella organization of all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank – in 2010. Like his previous job for Netanyahu, the role as a settler leader was also short-lived, ending after two years.
In the 2013 general election, Bennett led his newfound right-wing party, HaBayit HaYehudi, or “Jewish Home,” to the Knesset, with 12 seats. It was during those years he became a close ally of Netanyahu and a rival at the same time.
From 2013 to 2019, Bennett served in all Netanyahu-led governments, as minister of economy, religion, diaspora affairs, education and finally defense, which had been a long time ambition of his.
His military background, in which he fought against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1996, made him a defense hawk. That is why his first order of business as newly appointed defense minister in 2019 was to greenlight the assassination of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, in response to rocket firing over Israeli cities.
The assassination led a new round of fighting between PIJ and Israel, with more than 450 rockets fired from Gaza, and numerous Israeli military strikes on PIJ positions in Gaza. 34 people were killed in Gaza, most of them militants, according to the Israeli army.
Bennett has often advocated for targeted killings of Hamas leaders as well as his “lawn mower” doctrine, which essentially means destroying the organization by hunting down every Hamas commander in Gaza.
Brought up religious by American Jewish parents, combined with his nationalistic ideology, made Bennett a believer in “Greater Israel” – the idea that Israel has the right to settle in all territory between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, which includes the West Bank. He staunchly opposes any Palestinian state, and refers to the Bible when making his case for the Jews’ right to settle in the West Bank.
During his term as minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs in 2013, he said the contentious issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem would be solved by “gradually increasing the exercise of law in all of Jerusalem.”
Bennett, who now leads the right-wing Yamina party, is currently under heavy fire from Netanyahu’s Likud party, as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are labeling him a “wicked liar” who should remove his kippah – a clear sign that they don’t see him as proper Jewish because of his alliance with secular left-wing parties.
Netanyahu’s allies continuously point out that Bennett broke his election promise by forming a government with left-wing parties – something he swore on national TV he would never do.
In fact Bennett signed a document on live TV, stating he would never sit with opposition leader Lapid, with whom he is about to share the prime ministership. Bennett also railed at Netanyahu when he negotiated with the United Arab List to stay in power, saying the party leader Mansour Ababs is a “supporter of terrorism.”
After signing an agreement with Abbas to form a new government, Bennett apologized for his remarks, calling him a “brave leader.”
If his new government is sworn in on Sunday, as expected, Bennett will become the second youngest prime minister in Israel’s history with his 49 years of age, only surpassed by Netanyahu, who was 46-years-old when he was elected prime minister first in 1996.