After the 2019 elections, Naftali Bennett’s right-wing party failed to cross the electoral threshold and had no seats in Israel’s parliament.
Two years later, he’s on the verge of becoming the country’s next prime minister.
A former chief of staff to then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett could now unseat his former boss, bringing an end to Netanyahu’s run as the country’s longest serving prime minister.
Bennett has signed onto a historic coalition agreement with centrist leader Yair Lapid who brought together a wide swath of political parties as part of a change coalition to oust Netanyahu, including a far left party and even for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab-Israeli party. If Israel’s parliament signs off on the deal in the coming days, Bennett will take the top job for the first two years of a four-year term, followed by Lapid.
He will sit alongside politicians with completely opposing ideologies to his own.
Bennett lies to the right even of Netanyahu in several crucial areas. He would carry into office a history of incendiary remarks about Palestinians and a well-documented ambition to annex part of the occupied West Bank.
Few Israelis voted for Bennett’s Yamina party in March elections, picking up just 7 seats compared to Netanyahu’s 30. But Bennett found himself the kingmaker, wooed by both Netanyahu and Lapid who needed his party’s support in order to form a majority.
How much of his agenda Bennett can achieve while constrained in an awkwardly assembled coalition remains to be seen. But if the deal stands, the Yamina leader – for so long a supporting character in Israel’s high-stakes political spectacle – could become a major player on the world scene.
A staunch critic of the two-state solution
Born in Haifa to immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett served in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, before studying law at Hebrew University. He then became an entrepreneur, launching a tech start-up in 1999 which he later sold for $145 million.
He entered Israeli politics under Netanyahu’s wing years later, though the two fell out after he was dismissed as chief of staff in 2008. Bennett made his own name nationally in 2013 as the leader of the pro-settler party Jewish Home, making his desire to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state a central plank of his pitch to voters. After a merger with another party, he rebranded the party “Yamina” in 2019.
Over the coming years Bennett held several posts in Netanyahu’s various governments, including as minister of Defense, while continuing to outflank Netanyahu on issues relating to the Palestinian territories.
“The old models of peace between Israel and the Palestinians are no longer relevant. The time has come to rethink the two-state solution,” he wrote in a 2014 op-ed in the New York Times.
“The era of these negotiations is over,” he told CNN the same year. “The approach that we’ve been trying for twenty years now clearly has reached its end.”
He has consistently held firm to his opposition to a two-state resolution since then, citing security and ideological concerns as his reasoning.
In 2018, he said that if he were defense minister, he would enact a “shoot to kill” policy on the border with Gaza. Asked if that would apply to children breaching the barrier, the Times of Israel reported that he replied: “They are not children – they are terrorists. We are fooling ourselves.”
During the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas-led militants in Gaza, Bennett said the Palestinians could have turned Gaza “into a paradise.”
“They decided to turn it into a terrorist state,” Bennett told CNN’s Becky Anderson last month, before a ceasefire was agreed. “The moment they decide that they don’t want to annihilate us, this all ends.”
Bennett has railed against government regulation of the private sector and labor unions.
“If there is one thing I would want to achieve over the next four years, it is to break up the monopolies here and to break the stranglehold the big unions have on the Israeli economy,” he told the Guardian in 2013.
On a handful of other issues, he is considered comparatively liberal. Despite his religious background, during the most recent electoral campaign he said that gay people should “fully have all the civil rights a straight person in Israel has,” the Times of Israel reported – though he also said that didn’t mean he would take action to ensure legal equality.
In recent months, Bennett has become a thorn in Netanyahu’s side, fiercely criticizing his pandemic handling as well as the country’s interminable political deadlock.
Four elections in two years have left the country in flux, with Netanyahu simultaneously appearing to be both stubbornly unmovable yet perpetually on the cusp of losing power.
Bennett told CNN last month that compared to his time in the tech sector and in the military, Israel’s politics was “quite a mess.”
“After four elections and a further two months, it has been proven to all of us that there is simply no right-wing government possible that is headed by Netanyahu,” Bennett said in a speech on Sunday, shortly before he reached a deal with Lapid, a man he now refers to as his “friend.”
The two are unlikely bedfellows. A charismatic former TV anchor, Lapid has expressed support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians as well as moves to reduce the influence of religion in Israel, including by creating civil marriages.
How much of his personal ideology Bennett can enact, should he succeed in becoming prime minister, is an open question.
He has already hinted that the government would rely heavily on compromise to function. “The left is making difficult compromises to allow me … to become prime minister,” he said Sunday. “Everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams.”
But in the coming days, Bennett will be focused on achieving a more immediate dream.
The coalition agreement must pass a vote of confidence in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, before a new government and Prime Minister are sworn in.
According to Israeli law, the Knesset must also hold a vote of confidence within a week of being formally notified of a new government being formed. This step might not happen until Monday, which means the vote could be held as late as June 14.
That means there’s still time for Netanyahu and his allies to convince members of parliament to defect from the coalition, or somehow tie things up procedurally in parliament. A collapse of the ceasefire with the Hamas-led militants in Gaza or another outside event could also topple the burgeoning new government.
But if Bennett and Lapid’s coalition can hold firm, they would bring weeks (or years) of political maneuvering to a close – and pull off a once improbable deal that would elevate Bennett to Israel’s highest office.
CNN’s Hadas Gold contributed reporting. Additional reporting by Reuters.