The far-right tech millionaire who just took over as Israel’s prime minister

Naftali Bennett, a former multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur who made his political name with hard-line nationalist religious rhetoric, will be Israel’s new prime minister after parliament approved a new government yesterday.

The 120-member Knesset voted for an unlikely coalition formed by centrist Yair Lapid, by a razor-thin majority but enough to end 12 straight years of veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership.

The coalition agreement stipulates that Bennett, Netanyahu’s estranged former lawyer, serve as prime minister in a rotation deal, before Lapid takes over two years later.

Bennett, the 49-year-old former defense minister who was formerly in the Special Forces, leads the right-wing Yamina party, which has called on Israel to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

He would be the first Israeli prime minister to lead an openly religious lifestyle, and the first to practice the kippa, the small cap worn by devout Jewish men.

The son of American-born parents and fluent in English, he is very liberal about the economy and takes a hard line against Israel’s archenemy, Iran.

Netanyahu shares this ideology, having served in several of the Likud leader’s governments.

But in recent years, tensions have soared between then and Netanyahu has made little effort to hide his disdain for Bennett.

In late May, two months after Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in two years, Bennett reached an agreement with Lapid that paved the way for an unlikely eight-party coalition approved by parliament yesterday.

Bennett lives with his wife Gilat and their four children in the central city of Ra’anana.

He entered politics after selling his tech startup for $145 million in 2005, and the following year became chief of staff for Netanyahu, who was then in opposition.

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After leaving Netanyahu’s office, Bennett in 2010 became chairman of the Yesha Council, which lobbies in favor of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

He revolutionized politics in 2012, taking charge of the far-right Jewish Home party, which was facing annihilation.

He increased his parliamentary attendance fourfold, while making headlines with a series of incendiary comments to Palestinians.

In 2013, he said that “Palestinian terrorists should be killed, not released.”

He also argued that the West Bank was not under occupation because “there was no Palestinian state here,” and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be resolved but had to be endured, like “a sliver in the buttocks.”

Besides taking up the defense portfolio, Bennett served as Netanyahu’s Minister of Economy and Education.

He renamed Jewish Home as the “New Right” party, prior to the formation of the Yamina (“Right”) bloc in 2018, and was part of Netanyahu’s coalition that collapsed that same year.

But he was not asked to join a unity government in May 2020 – a move seen as an expression of Netanyahu’s personal contempt for him.

In 2020, in the face of the rampant coronavirus pandemic, Bennett has put a right-wing rhetoric aside to focus on the health crisis. He has moved to expand his appeal by launching plans to contain Covid-19 and help the economy.

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Supporters and former critics have accused Bennett of betraying his national voters by joining a coalition that includes the dove Meretz party and support for the conservative Arab-Israeli Islamic party Raam.

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But Bennett said he is on a mission to restore rule in Israel and avoid a fifth election in just over two years.

In an interview with Channel 12 news, he justified his decision to join the “Change” coalition despite his explicit electoral pledges not to participate in a government headed by Lapid or formed with him.

“The main promise of this election was to lift Israel out of chaos,” he said.

“I choose what is good for Israel.”

While he risks alienating his traditional right-wing base by violating his campaign promise to oust Netanyahu, Bennett’s move could enable him to expand his support in the longer term.

“The chance of becoming prime minister is a huge opportunity for Bennett to present himself as prime ministerial material,” said Toby Green, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Thus, Bennett could “present himself to the mainstream in Israel as the natural successor to Netanyahu, as the right-wing candidate who has shown that he is capable of running the state,” he said.

© France Press agency 2021

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