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Naftali Bennett, Israel’s next PM: Meet the man behind the slogans and stereotypes

Naftali Bennett, who is on track to become Israel’s 13th prime minister within days, is easily labeled — religious hard-liner, ultranationalist and settler leader on the one hand, high-tech millionaire, special-forces operative and political wunderkind on the other.

Most of these labels, on closer scrutiny, don’t really apply. At least not fully.

Bennett at 49 is the man who has come closest to the holy grail of Israeli politics, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, but he’s not really a politician, certainly not a consistent one. In the last 14 years he has been in five different parties. He entered the Knesset for the first time just eight years ago, and just two years ago one of his parties even failed to cross the electoral threshold. Now he’s about to become prime minister and his current party, Yamina, is falling apart, with half its members having either defected or considering it.

In interviews he likes to present himself as not being like other politicians “who never ran a business” — instead, he’s a tech executive and a commando, “an expert in hunting down rocket launchers behind enemy lines.” But the sum of his years in the military and business is even shorter than his stint in politics. Those who know him well predict that in a few years he’ll be doing something else.

The same goes for his personal background. He wears a tiny kippa, improbably perching on his bald head with the help of two-sided tape, but that doesn’t define him. Or his family. He has American parents and spent part of his early childhood in New York and Montreal, but he’s at most an ambivalent “Anglo.” As a self-professed fanatic of the Greater Land of Israel, he has never shown much interest in living in the West Bank and built a house in the placid upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana.

In a visit to the Chabad center in Haifa five years ago, Bennett described how his parents, who emigrated from San Francisco in 1967 following the Six-Day War, began keeping kosher and observing Shabbat because of him. Naftali was born in Haifa in 1972 and when he was 3, the family moved to Canada, where his father, Jim, worked as a fundraiser for the Haifa-based Technion technology institute. The toddler was placed in a Chabad kindergarten so he could keep up his Hebrew.

“I came home a dos, with a kippa and tzitzit” is how he tells the story, using the Israeli slang for a religious person and referring to the fringes that protrude from a religious man’s undershirt. “And I asked my father why he didn’t have a kippa and tzitzit of his own, and we slowly began observing more, going to synagogue, keeping kashrut.”

But this was more likely part of a wider spiritual process his secular parents were undergoing that led to their emigration to Israel and their gradual observance, which was never especially stringent. This process was accompanied by their political journey from students who protested against the Vietnam War to right-wingers who protested against the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and Israel’s pullout from Gaza in 2005. Of Jim and Myrna’s three sons, Naftali would be the one to spend years without a kippa and marry a secular woman.

So how religious is Israel’s “first religious prime minister”? And does it even matter?

By all accounts, he’s what is known in today’s Israel as dati lite, religious lite, not a regular synagogue-goer and not the kind of person who can tell you what the weekly Torah portion or Hebrew date is. His high school, Haifa’s Yavneh school, may have been called a yeshiva, but he didn’t graduate with much of a taste for the Talmud.

He entered the Knesset as the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, which means “Jewish home,” the rebranded venerable National Religious Party. But he immediately went about trying to fill his team with secular politicians and visibly chafed whenever he had to meet with rabbis for “guidance.” When he meets voters, unlike other religious politicians, he will rarely have any wisdom from the Torah to dish out, but will regale them with stories from his time in the army or business.

So what kind of a religious Israeli is he? Probably a Bnei Akiva youth movement kind, though not the austere Bnei Akiva of today, with its gender segregation and emphasis on observance. Bennett’s Bnei Akiva, back in 1980s Haifa, was about dancing and hiking and the counselors’ talks on patriotism and service.

Bnei Akiva was also where Bennett first heard the name Netanyahu, though it was in context of Bibi’s older brother, Yoni. At Bnei Akiva, Bennett would have repeatedly seen a film on the special forces’ legendary hostage rescue at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport in 1976; Yoni is killed at the end. “Yoni’s Letters,” the book of letters that Yoni wrote as a teenager forced to move with his parents to Philadelphia, and later as a commando in the Israel Defense Forces, were a staple of Bnei Akiva talks.

Yoni wrote about the higher purpose of serving one’s country, as opposed to the boys in Philadelphia, who “are so poor in substance” and only “talk about cars and girls.” “Yoni’s Letters” is a lot less popular in today’s more cynical and materialistic Israel, but it was the teenage Bennett’s Bible, so at 18 he volunteered for the Sayeret Matkal commando unit that Yoni had led at Entebbe. For years, Bennett had prepared himself physically for the demands of Israel’s most elite special forces unit.

Face-to-face with Hezbollah

At the time, 1990, the IDF’s top units weren’t yet filled with the graduates of religious schools. Bennett didn’t enjoy being seen as “one of the dosim,” and a year and a half later, when he was sent for officer training, he was no longer wearing his kippa and was enjoying a much more secular lifestyle when on leave.

Bennett’s six years in the military satisfied his craving for danger and adventure. Sayeret Matkal taught him to operate in a small team behind enemy lines, but as a young soldier he saw little action, and when he became an officer he faced a dilemma. He could go back to Matkal and take part in “core missions” — but as an operator, not a commander — or move to a slightly less elite unit in order to receive a command.

He chose the latter and swiftly became a team leader and then a company commander in the Maglan unit, but the fact that some of his contemporaries returned to Matkal to command teams of their own — as had the Netanyahu brothers, Yoni and Bibi — would leave him with a feeling of inadequacy even beyond his military career. He was by all accounts a capable and creative commander, popular with his men despite often pushing them beyond their physical limits, but an occasional nuisance to his senior officers, who didn’t always appreciate it when he argued with their orders.

Ultimately he chose to leave the service, though he could have continued. He had already made the decision when he became involved in an incident with international implications. In April 1996, Israel bombarded southern Lebanon for 17 days in Operation Grapes of Wrath, an attempt to get Hezbollah to stop firing on northern Israel and on IDF forces in Israel’s self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon.

Bennett led a company in a deep penetration raid on Hezbollah positions, until on the eighth day of the mission the soldiers came under mortar fire. Bennett called for artillery support, which rained down on the mortar team’s position, near a UN compound where hundreds of Lebanese civilians were taking shelter. One hundred and six people were killed and international condemnations forced Israel to end Operation Grapes of Wrath earlier than planned, without realizing its objectives.

Bennett wasn’t responsible for the targeting of the shells, but years later he justified the artillery fire. “Hezbollah was firing from schools and hospitals,” he said, adding that the covering fire “saved our lives.”

He only found out about the disaster hours later, after helicopters flew the commandos back to Israel. Still, years later, anonymous senior officers said his alleged panicking under fire led to an over-hasty artillery response, adding to his feeling that his military genius was underappreciated and that the IDF’s high command suffers from mediocrity. Either way, it was time to get out.

Bennett loves to talk about his army days and did many stints as a reservist. But he’s also easily riled when his short military career comes up and has trouble facing the fact that in Israel, hundreds of men have more impressive operational records. Still, the experience would help him in his next career.

After his discharge, Bennett spent three years as a rather indifferent law and business student at Hebrew University. He still preferred to spend his time lecturing to young people about service, and that’s how he met his wife, Gilat, speaking to high school students at the battle site on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill. She was a soldier in the IDF Education and Youth Corps, five years younger.

The fact that Naftali and Gilat moved in together before their marriage is another sign of his laid-back religiosity. After their wedding in 1999, they moved to the settlement of Bet Arye. But Bennett only lived across the Green Line for a few months. He was more interested in making money than settling the hilltops, and as CEO of Cyota, a startup specializing in online banking security software, he needed to move to a major financial center.

The Bennetts would spend the next four years in New York; he pursued investors and customers for Cyota, she worked as a pastry chef in Manhattan restaurants.

Just as with his military career, Bennett has spent much more time talking than doing. Of Cyota’s four Israeli founders, only one had tech know-how and none had any real business experience. But that wasn’t so unusual for Israeli entrepreneurs at the height of the dotcom bubble. And what Bennett lacked in scientific expertise, he made up elsewhere.

As CEO, Bennett brought to his job the same determination he had as an officer, and this time he would remind his partners, “What can happen? Nobody is going to get killed. Nobody is going to step on a mine.”

As the initial investment dwindled and they were forced to cut staff, they even began looking for loans from relatives. Their eventual success owed much to Bennett’s perseverance and confident charm as the main salesman — and their product was a big success in helping banks curb online fraud. It was that confidence that got Cyota sold for $145 million to RSA Security in 2005, before it ever turned a profit, making Bennett a millionaire at 33.

That’s also when Bennett began to lose interest in his new career. He stayed on a few months after the sale and had offers to join other companies and investment funds. He would make a few brief forays in tech, including at least two more startup investments that would net him more millions, but he had already achieved the elusive startup exit dream. More money wasn’t enough of a temptation; he had enough to go back to Israel, build a house and have children with Gilat.

Bennett was always engaged with politics, and there was no question as to where he stood on Israel’s political spectrum. By his teenage years, his parents had completed their own personal journey to the far right, which opposed any compromise on territory. Bennett himself was active in the youth wing of the Tehiya party, which had been founded in 1979 to the right of Likud and protested Menachem Begin’s agreement to return all of Sinai to Egypt for peace. One leader of the youth wing was Gideon Sa’ar, whom Bennett would meet 20 years later as an upcoming Likud politician, and now a partner in the nascent governing coalition as leader of the New Hope party. But Bennett missed the two great struggles of the Israeli right — he was in the army during the protest wave against the Oslo Accords in the early and mid-’90s, and in the United States with Cyota during the fight against the Gaza disengagement in 2005.

Despite his ideological fervor, he only decided to go into politics at 35, after having enough of business and experiencing yet more frustration in the IDF as a reserve commander during the failed Second Lebanon War of 2006.

It was a nadir for the right wing, especially Likud. Ariel Sharon, architect of the disengagement, and other Likud leaders split with the party at the end of 2005 and formed the centrist Kadima with senior Laborites including Shimon Peres. Sharon soon had two strokes and slipped into an eight-year coma, but Kadima, under the accidental leadership of Ehud Olmert, still managed to trounce Likud in the 2006 election.

Likud won only 12 Knesset seats under Netanyahu, who had finally returned as party leader — six years after he resigned following the end of his first term as prime minister and his election defeat to Labor’s Ehud Barak. Many predicted that Likud would never return to power; certainly its leader’s career would never recover.

At the time, Netanyahu was synonymous with defeat; plenty of Likudniks were out to replace him. Then came the Olmert government’s disastrous handling of the Lebanon war, which is also when Bennett arrived.

Mediocre Bennett

On the face of it, for a man who entered politics as the opposition leader’s chief of staff less than 15 years ago, and now is about to become prime minister, Bennett has enjoyed a meteoric rise. But a closer look shows a much more erratic path.

He lasted barely a year and a half in Netanyahu’s office before falling out first with Netanyahu’s circle of old loyal advisers, then with Bibi’s wife and finally with the boss himself. He was fired from his next political job, as CEO of the settlers’ Yesha Council, after an even shorter stint, when the council’s veterans tired of his media stunts and rebranding exercises.

The last straw was his decision to join, as Yesha CEO, the left-wing social justice protests in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011. Bennett claimed that he wanted to broaden the settlers’ engagement with other parts of Israeli society. His critics felt he was building his own personal brand.

After losing that job, Bennett’s next political adventure was to found a new party, The Israelis, which lasted a month, before he decided to take over an existing party. In fact, Bennett has been involved in five parties over the past 15 years.

He joined Likud in 2007 in the belief that his new job with Netanyahu would get him into the Knesset in the next election. But by the time this came around in 2009, he had already been banished, and Netanyahu made it back to power without Bennett.

Bennett abandoned his plans for a new party when he realized there was an easier way of getting into the Knesset. The old National Religious Party, renamed Habayit Hayehudi, had fallen on bad times, as younger religious Zionist voters preferred either more radical parties or simply didn’t feel the need to vote for a religious party. Like Bennett, their religion wasn’t important enough to dictate their politics. He of course had never voted for the party, but it was about to hold its first primary in the hope of attracting new members, and Bennett joined up, and ran for the leadership. The old guard didn’t have a chance and Bennett romped to victory with two-thirds of the vote.

His six years as leader of Habayit Hayehudi was the longest time Bennett spent in any job, and this was one of his least favorite. He chafed at the need to consult with the rabbis and party functionaries, and was blocked when he wanted to bring in attractive new secular candidates, most humiliatingly when he was forced to backtrack on former Beitar Jerusalem striker and Mizrahi icon Eli Ohana joining Habayit Hayehudi’s candidates slate.

Most of all he hated how the other leaders of the party and its rabbis accepted that Habayit Hayehudi would always play second fiddle to Likud and Netanyahu, rather than challenge for the national leadership. Which is why Bennett finally broke with Habayit Hayehudi in 2018, forming his fourth party, New Right, which only brought him more humiliation and nearly the end of his political career when the new team failed, by 1,400 votes, to cross the electoral threshold. This left him out of the Knesset, but thanks to Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition, Bennett was back a few months later, this time with his latest party, Yamina, which means rightward.

Yamina has hardly won resounding success, but its mere seven seats have given Bennett the leverage to demand the prime minister’s job in return for joining the coalition to replace Netanyahu.

Bennett’s flitting between fringe parties doesn’t give us much of an indication of what kind of a prime minister he would be, and neither do his ministerial roles. He failed to leave much of a mark in his two years as economics minister. The role’s bureaucratic nature bored him. He was much more excited to be a member of the security cabinet, finally having a say on military and security affairs, and demanding that he receive personal intelligence briefings.

The next three and a half years as education minister were more rewarding; he led reforms that improved the teaching of math and reduced crowding in classrooms. But he also picked silly culture-war fights, one in which he dropped from the curriculum Dorit Rabinyan’s novel on a relationship between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man. Bennett also forbade high schools to host lectures by the former soldiers involved in the group Breaking the Silence.

But despite the Education Ministry’s high profile, Bennett’s heart wasn’t in it. Netanyahu promised him the Defense Ministry before the 2015 election, but that was another broken promise. Bennett got Defense finally in late 2019, but only because Netanyahu was desperate to prevent a governing coalition led by Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. Six months later, Gantz replaced Bennett anyway.

Bennett’s hard-line right-wing posturing and his racist statements on having “killed many Arabs” in his army days haven’t amounted to much in terms of policy. His grandiose Stability Initiative from 2012 includes the annexation of Area C in the West Bank (giving the 80,000 Palestinians there full Israeli citizenship), but it has never been a real priority for him. Officially he still supports annexation, but he has never tried to make it government policy.

As a minister under Netanyahu he admitted: “I’m in a great position, always a bit to the right of Bibi. Whenever I make a statement on security or diplomatic matters, he has to match me.”

People who have worked closely with him insist he’s actually much more moderate and the hard-right statements are largely electioneering to differentiate himself from Netanyahu. “Just wait until Netanyahu goes and there’s a bit more space,” one of them once said. “Naftali will become much more moderate and try to appeal to centrist voters.”

He tried to do that during the pandemic when he scolded other right-wingers for trying to push their agendas. “Not corona, not important,” became his slogan.

If he becomes prime minister, he will be in office with the support of Labor, left-wing Meretz and the United Arab List. His right-wing ideology, such as it is, isn’t his prime motivator. So what is?

Just wanting to be loved

In his most recent interview with Channel 12’s Amit Segal, after the coalition agreements were signed, Bennett squirmed and made excuses for breaking his key election promises — to prioritize a right-wing coalition, not to serve in a government with Meretz or the United Arab List, and not to agree to Yair Lapid becoming prime minister. There was an authentic moment, though.

“I told my kids that their father is going to make a move that will make him the most hated man in Israel,” he dolefully told Segal. “But I’m doing it for my country.”

That hardly makes sense. Most Israelis want to see Netanyahu replaced, and Bennett knows those numbers. Still, the angry protests outside his home and those of other Yamina legislators, and Netanyahu’s accusations that he has carried out the “fraud of the century” have the power to make him feel hated.

Bennett wants to be prime minister and still seeks to emulate Netanyahu, but unlike Netanyahu, who wants to be admired and feared, Bennett really just wants to be loved.

Which is why he’s still yearning for Netanyahu’s approval, despite the constant abuse, the mocking in public and the vicious secret smearing of him and his family by Bibi and Sara in the compliant media. He kept on coming back in the hope that one day Netanyahu would recognize him as the prodigal son. It took Netanyahu’s shambolic managing of the COVID-19 crisis (until the vaccines arrived) for Bennett to finally realize that his idol, for all his grand statesmanship and rhetorical brilliance, is actually a lousy manager.

And as Bennett said Sunday night, when he finally burned his bridges, Netanyahu is prepared “to take the entire State of Israel to his personal Masada.”

But if he can’t have Netanyahu’s affirmation, he needs it from others around him — particularly from Ayelet Shaked, who first brought him to work with Netanyahu, and then suffered the same abuse as Bennett in the Byzantine court, including baseless innuendo of their having an affair. For all his bravado, Bennett still needs Shaked, who escaped with him from jobs in Netanyahu’s office and remained with him throughout his political wanderings.

Thus in the last days of the coalition talks he stood aside while Shaked nearly wrecked the deal over her demand for a seat on the Judicial Appointments Committee. He needs her in this government and her demands will be met.

And it’s why Bennett is so anxious to tell everyone that Lapid has been such a mensch throughout the negotiations, so honest and fair-minded. He needs it to be true. He needs to resurrect the “pact of brothers” he had back in 2013 with Lapid, when the two new party leaders demanded that Netanyahu take both of them into his coalition, or they would both stay out. But this time it’s not to force Netanyahu’s hand. Netanyahu is gone, as far as Bennett is concerned. It’s so Bennett can be surrounded by love and support.

Israel 3.0

The 11 men and one woman who have served as Israeli prime minister can be categorized in different ways. Seven (Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eshkol, Meir, Rabin, Peres, Barak) came from the Labor movement, four were Likudniks (Begin, Shamir, Sharon, Netanyahu), and Ehud Olmert, who for most of his career was in Likud, became prime minister as a member of the short-lived Kadima party. In one sense, Bennett is like Olmert, representing neither of the two historical parties of the Zionist movement and coming to office under freak circumstances.

Meanwhile, nine of the prime ministers belonged to the “founders’ generation,” whether as leaders of the state in its early decades (Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eshkol, Meir), leaders of the pre-state right-wing militias (Begin, Shamir), or the younger founders who were field commanders and bureaucrats at Israel’s foundation (Rabin, Peres, Sharon). Even though 42 years of age separated them, they all shared in the struggle for Jewish statehood and in the early years of uncertainty about Israel’s security and sustainability.

Three prime ministers (Netanyahu, Barak, Olmert) belong to the generation of the state, growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, cocky young sabras who, while perhaps not taking Israel’s existence totally for granted, were fully at home in the realm of Jewish sovereignty and Israeli power.

Bennett and his partner Lapid, should either of them be sworn in, are the first prime ministers of a new generation, growing up in a much more confident era after the Six-Day War. It was a time when Israel’s regional dominance was more pronounced and Israeli life was rapidly becoming less parochial and closer to a Western standard of living.

Their politics, family and religious backgrounds are different, but they share a type of ruthless pragmatism, unabashed Zionism and a sense of entitlement, typical of the Israeli upper middle class that’s at home in Tel Aviv but very comfortable in Manhattan as well. In part, they’re the products of the Netanyahu era and have learned their political styles from observing him, but they lack Netanyahu’s deep-seated phobias and existential fears.

But between Bennett and Lapid, Bennett is more representative of today’s Israel. Lapid ultimately is a product of the Tel Aviv media elite into which he was born and which he remains part of, while Bennett is much harder to pin down but is connected to a much wider range of Israeli groups without being beholden to any of them.

Bennett isn’t just the first of the third generation of Israeli prime ministers, he’s Israel 3.0: a Jewish nationalist but not really dogmatic. A bit religious, but certainly not devout. A military man who prefers the comforts of civilian urban life and a high-tech entrepreneur who isn’t looking to make any more millions. A supporter of the Greater Land of Israel but not a settler. And he may well not be a lifelong politician either, though so far politics is the career he has spent the most time in.

Bennett is unlikely to spend very long as Israel’s prime minister. If the new government defies expectations by surviving two years, he will abide by the deal to rotate the premiership with Lapid in August 2023, but after occupying the top job, it will be tough to get used to being just another minister again. And his chances of winning enough seats in a future election to return as prime minister are exceedingly slim. A leader of a small party serving as prime minister is a bizarre occurrence that will not repeat itself.

He’s 49, and by his early 50s he’ll have nothing to prove any longer in politics. If with Lapid he can make this unlikely government a success and stay the course for the next four years, he will be remembered as the prime minister who ended the Netanyahu era and helped usher in a period of political stability. It will be mission accomplished and time to move on to his next adventure. Just like other members of the Israel 3.0 generation, he has trouble staying in the same place for too long.

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