Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a story that was first published on June 4.
After four elections in two years, and with the country trapped in an agonizing parliamentary stalemate, Naftali Bennett appeared to be on the outside looking in, unable to reach the levers of power in Israeli politics.
Having failed to cross the electoral threshold in the first election in April 2019, his right-wing party had a mere seven seats following the latest election.
And yet Bennett is now Israel’s Prime Minister.
The former tech entrepreneur who entered politics to serve then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as chief of staff, ousted his old boss on Sunday, bringing an end to Netanyahu’s run as the country’s prime minister after more than 12 consecutive years in office, and starting a new – if still uncertain – era in Israel.
Bennett won a confidence vote with the narrowest of margins, just 60 votes to 59, and will lead the most diverse coalition Israel has ever seen, including the first Arab party to serve in the government. In his speech before the Knesset confidence vote, Bennett celebrated that diversity and warned of polarization within the country.
“Twice in history, we have lost our national home precisely because the leaders of the generation were not able to sit with one and another and compromise. Each was right, yet with all their being right, they burnt the house down on top of us,” Bennett said in a speech before his swearing in. “I am proud of the ability to sit together with people with very different views from my own.”
Few Israelis voted for Bennett’s Yamina party in March’s elections; he picked up just 7 seats, compared to Netanyahu’s 30. But Bennett found himself wooed by both Netanyahu and centrist leader Yair Lapid in their efforts to form a parliamentary majority.
Now Bennett will hold the country’s top job for two years, before handing over to Lapid.
The two men’s partnership is an unlikely one, and Bennett will sit alongside politicians with completely opposing ideologies to his own in government. But as Lapid and Bennett sat next to each other in the government’s first cabinet meeting late Sunday night, Lapid said it was based on mutual trust and friendship.
The two formed a political brotherhood in 2013, and it has re-emerged to lead the country into a new era of politics.
Bennett lies to the ideological right of Netanyahu in several crucial areas and carries into office a history of incendiary remarks about Palestinians and a well-documented ambition to annex part of the occupied West Bank.
How much of his agenda Bennett can achieve while constrained in an awkwardly assembled coalition remains to be seen. But the Yamina leader – for so long a supporting character in Israel’s high-stakes political spectacle – is placed to become a major player on the world scene.
Staunch critic of 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.
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.
The international community, including the United States, is pushing for the renewal of a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, but this government is ill-equipped to handle such negotiations, since two of the parties are vocally opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In 2018, Bennett 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.
Bennett has become a right-wing thorn in Netanyahu’s side, fiercely criticizing his handling of the pandemic as well as the country’s interminable political deadlock.
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.”
Bennett’s government will focus on domestic issues during his two years as prime minister, before he hands the reins to Lapid according to their coalition agreement.
These will include the relationship between religion and state, the cost of living, and quality of life issues. Israel also has not passed a budget since March 2018; the newly anointed government has three months to enact one or the Knesset will automatically dissolve and the country will once again head to an election.
He will be watched closely by a familiar foe. Netanyahu, once considered a “magician” of the country’s political scene, warned during Sunday’s swearing-in debate that he would remain a force in Parliament. “We’ll be back soon,” he told lawmakers, after claiming that the new government would not stand up to Iran.
How much of his personal ideology Bennett can now enact as prime minister is an open question, but he has already made clear that compromise will form an important part of the government’s ability to function.
“The government that will be formed represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona. Precisely here lies the opportunity,” Bennett said on Sunday. “Our principle is: We will sit together, and we will forge forward on that which we agree – and there is much we agree on, transport, education and so on – and what separates us, we will leave to the side.”