Naftali Bennett Is Face of Israel's New Right Wing

High-Tech Mogul Turned Around Religious Zionist Party

The Right Look: Naftali Bennett looks more like a high-tech millionaire than a hard-right Israeli politician. And that’s the point.
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The Right Look: Naftali Bennett looks more like a high-tech millionaire than a hard-right Israeli politician. And that’s the point.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 14, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
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The NRP has long been right wing on settlements, but not on social and economic policy. Zevulun Orlev, the party’s most prominent politician in recent decades whom Bennett defeated in the primary and caused to retire, was decidedly left leaning in this area. Bennett, by contrast, is a neoconservative high-tech millionaire whose political platform includes significantly weakening trade unions.

In 1999, Bennett co-founded Cyota, a company that develops anti-fraud software, and became its CEO. He sold the company in 2005 to RSA Security, based in the United States, for $145 million. With no need to make any more money, he moved into the political realm. He became chief of staff to Benjamin Netanyahu, who at that time was the opposition leader.

Bennett’s combination of religious ideology and entrepreneurship is “capturing the imagination of the people,” said the veteran commentator on the religious Zionist community, Bambi Sheleg. Religious Zionists have become less interested in social welfare over time, and Bennett offers an expression and role model for this identity. He presents a path for the Orthodox sector to pursue individualism, while retaining ideals regarding religion and settlements.

“It’s Torah im capitalism,” Sheleg said, twisting the expression “Torah im derech eretz,” the Modern Orthodox ideal of combining Torah observance and study with conduct in the workaday world.

Amir Paz-Fuchs of Ono Academic College, one of Israel’s leading scholars on social and welfare platforms, commented, “In the past you could always count on [the party] to oppose threats of privatization, on threats to the welfare state and the problem of inequality, but now it’s just like religious Likud.” He was alluding to Likud’s strongly free market bent.

In a sense, the Bennett era is phase three for Religious Zionist politics. During the first phase, the party was essentially a continuation of the pre-state Religious Zionist movement, headed by leaders from the days before independence, and focused on the religious character of the Jewish state.

After the Six Day War of 1967, a new generation took over. It shifted the party to the right, and its main battle became building and maintaining settlements. “Since the revolution of the late 1960s, Bennett is the biggest revolution in the party,” said Tamir Sheafer, a political scientist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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