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Naftali Bennett: The hard-liner hoping to oust Netanyahu

Andreas Noll
June 3, 2021

The Netanyahu era seems to be coming to a close with a new coalition that is hoping to oust him as prime minister. The ultranationalist Naftali Bennett is set to replace him for the next two years.

Naftali Bennett
Naftali Bennett hopes a new coalition will oust Benjamin Netanyahu from powerImage: Yonatan Sindel/AFP

Like many Israeli politicians, Naftali Bennett came to politics via the military. The son of US immigrants from San Francisco, he served six years in Israel's special forces, including the Sayaret-Matkal special reconnaissance unit, in which Likud politician Benjamin Netanyahu also served. Bennett was 34 in 2006 when Netanyahu, who at the time was leader of the opposition, appointed him as his chief of staff, doubtless partly because of this similar past.

Bennett's military record has been a source of controversial public debate in Israel. In April 1996, as an officer of a special unit, he was involved in an Israeli artillery attack on the Lebanese village of Qana, which led to the destruction of a UN compound and the death of over 100 civilians. 

After his military service ended in 1996, he went to New York to study law and then founded a software company that he sold a few years later for $145 million (ca. €120 million). He reportedly likes to say that he could have spent the rest of his life "drinking cocktails in the Caribbean."

Political career began with Netanyahu

Bennett's political career was launched after the 2006 Lebanon War — during which he lost his best friend — when he joined Netanyahu's team. The two were close associates for two years, but in 2009, shortly before Netanyahu was elected head of government once more, Bennett ended his association with his mentor and distanced himself from him.

Bennett criticized Netanyahu for giving into US pressure to put a temporary stop to Israel's settlement policy. As the director general of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for the settlements, he organized a successful protest against the settlement freeze and began to increase the political pressure on Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu has been in office for 12 yearsImage: Yonatan Sindel/AFP

Ever further to the right

He left Likud, the biggest conservative party in Israel, in 2012 and joined the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, which at the time only had three seats in the Knesset. Half a year later, he became its leader and was able to extend the party's voter base and get more representatives into the parliament. He joined Netanyahu's government in 2013 as minister of the economy and minister of religious services and was also a member of the State Security Cabinet.

But in 2018, he left Jewish Home and formed a breakaway party called HaYamin HeHadash (The New Right), which then joined with the Union of Right-Wing Parties to create the right-wing political alliance Yamina (Rightwards) ahead of the 2019 legislative election to support Netanyahu's reelection. Bennett joined Netanyahu's Cabinet again in autumn 2019 as defense minister.

But since 2020, after Yamina won seven seats in the Knesset at the parliamentary elections, it and Bennett have been working hard to bring Netanyahu down. Now, an eclectic coalition — one that is extremely adventurous by Israeli standards — made up of parties that range from the extreme left to the bourgeois center and the most extreme right might just have made this possible.

'Change coalition'

Apart from Yamina, the alliance includes the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), which is a much stronger party with 17 parliamentary seats and whose leader Yair Lapid could become foreign minister before taking over from Bennett as prime minister in two years' time. It also comprises the left-wing Israeli Labor Party, the social-democratic Meretz (Vigor), Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) and lawmakers from the United Arab List, who will give the coalition the necessary majority in parliament.

It remains to be seen what political goals Naftali Bennett will be able to achieve with this heterogeneous "change coalition" comprised of former Netanyahu allies as well as left-wing and liberal forces. But what it is set on doing first is to send the prime minister, who faces serious corruption charges, into the opposition after 12 years in government.

An Israeli settlement in the West Bank
Bennett wants to extend the Jewish settlements in the West BankImage: Mosab Shawer/APA/Zuma/picture alliance

Bennett will also do everything he can to push through his ultranationalist ideas, which in the past years have shifted the Israeli government and Netanyahu ever further to the right. Though his social and economic views are considered liberal, he is a hard-liner when it comes to Middle East conflict and a virulent critic of the two-state solution. "I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state," he told The New Yorker in 2013. All the same, he told DW two years later: "We have to realize that no one is going anywhere, adding: "The Jews are here to stay; the Arabs are here to stay. We have to live together."  

He is a major proponent of annexing the West Bank and increasing the number of Jewish settlers in the region to 1 million. This plan has met with international outrage.

This article was translated from German.