Australia/Israel Review


Who is Naftali Bennett?

Jun 29, 2021 | BICOM

The Unexpected PM? New Israeli Premier Naftali Bennett (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Unexpected PM? New Israeli Premier Naftali Bennett (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On June 13, for the first time in 12 years, a majority of Israeli MKs expressed confidence in a government not headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. Instead, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett will lead the new Government for the first two years, and then will be replaced by Yesh Atid leader and current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Bennett thus became the first kippa (skullcap) wearing, religiously observant prime minister of Israel.

The Bennett-Lapid Government is particularly diverse and includes eight parties across the possible political spectrum – two left-wing parties (Labor and Meretz) two centrist parties (Yesh Atid and Blue and White) and three right-wing parties (Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu). Moreover, in an historic first, an Arab party, the Islamic Ra’am party, joined the coalition, and its leader Mansour Abbas has become a deputy minister. 

 

Background and politics

Bennett grew up in a liberal and cosmopolitan household, living in the US for long periods as a child and later as a hi-tech entrepreneur. After spending six years in the IDF and serving in the prestigious elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit (following his childhood hero Yoni Netanyahu, Binyamin’s older brother who was killed during the 1976 rescue operation at Entebbe), he spent three years as a law and business student at Hebrew University. He then made a fortune in his first role as CEO of the cyber-security firm Cyota, which eventually sold for US$145 million (A$193 million) in 2005.

Bennett entered politics at the age of 35, as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. He eventually found his political home in the national religious Jewish Home Party in 2012, leading the party to win 12 seats in the 2013 election and subsequently forming an electoral pact with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to enter Netanyahu’s government. 

Feeling the religious Jewish Home was too parochial, overly influenced by rabbinic leaders, and unable to appeal to a wider audience, Bennett formed the “New Right” party in December 2018 alongside his long-time political ally, secular right-winger Ayelet Shaked. 

His rise to the top of Israel’s political establishment has been unexpected, especially given that in the April 2019 Israeli election – the first of four over the last two years – the New Right party failed to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25%, leaving him temporarily out of politics.

However, in the most recent election on March 23, 2021, Yamina (“Rightward”), the successor to New Right, gained just over 5% of the vote and seven seats in the Knesset. 

Bennett has historically held hawkish views regarding territorial concessions but understands coalitional and international constraints that oppose such moves. Bennett has promoted annexing Area C – the area of the West Bank still under Israeli civil control – giving the Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship while Palestinians living in Areas A and B – the areas under Palestinian civil control – would govern themselves, a plan he calls “autonomy on steroids”. At the same time, the Prime Minister is aware that several members of his diverse coalition oppose such moves, as does the Biden Administration, with which Bennett would like to maintain good relations. Moreover, the Abraham Accords contain a component which postpones any potential Israeli annexationist moves for several years. 

Bennett has also consulted with liberal Orthodox thinker Micah Goodman who has set out a plan to “shrink” rather than resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Goodman advocates taking an incremental approach in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the fact that no permanent status arrangement is likely to be within reach for the foreseeable future, and he urges Israel to take several measures that would scale back the conflict. These ideas were reflected in Bennett’s inaugural speech in the Knesset when he said, “The Palestinians must take responsibility for their actions and to understand that violence will be met with a firm response. However, security calm will lead to economic initiatives, which will lead to reducing friction and the conflict.” This perspective could be helpful in aligning the new Government with the Biden Administration.

Bennett is generally liberal on social issues. As leader of the Yesha Council, the main advocacy body for the settlement movement, he attended the 2011 social protests in Tel Aviv, with the aim of broadening the settlers’ engagement with other parts of Israeli society (a move controversial within the Council and which led to him leaving his position). Bennett has consistently expressed openness to engaging with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and sees them as fully Jewish (unlike more conservative members of the National Religious camp).

He is supportive of LGBTQ rights, telling the community he “loved them very much,” and adding that he was “about respecting each individual – live and let live” and “every legal and civil right afforded to a straight person should be equally afforded to those in the LGBTQ community.” While a former head of the Yesha Council, Bennett lives with his secular wife in the affluent city of Raanana in central Israel.

 

Bennett and Israel’s National Religious camp

The national religious camp in Israel is broadly right-wing on the peace process but includes a wide spectrum of opinion on social issues, the relationship between religion and state, and the approach to interacting with other sectors in Israeli society.

Similar to ultra-Orthodox groups, the conservative wing of the national religious camp prefers to minimise interaction with secular Israelis and mobilise to secure their own sectoral interests. They tend to live in religiously homogeneous neighbourhoods and settlements, and vote for religious parties, such as Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party, that are guided by senior rabbis.

By contrast, those in the more moderate wing of the national religious camp consider secular Israelis as strategic partners with many common interests and adopt a more liberal approach to recognising all strands of Judaism. Despite strong right-wing credentials on the Palestinian issue, Bennett is part of this group (as are other religious ministers in the new Government Ze’ev Elkin of New Hope, Minister of Housing and Construction and Matan Kahana of Yamina, the Religious Affairs Minister). In 2019, Bennett defined his personal religious practice as “Israeli-Jewish,” explaining: “Israeli-Jewish can mean religious, traditional, secular, Haredi-nationalist or Haredi … Israeli Jews don’t judge each other based on how strictly they observe mitzvot. Israeli Jews love and accept every Jew.”

© Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM bicom.org.uk), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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