Pugnacious, religious, audacious and very ambitious: Bennett prepares for top job

Bennett is a highly ambitious man who certainly saw himself becoming prime minister one day when he joined the then-Leader of Opposition Netanyahu’s team


Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on June 6, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** כנסת נפטלי בנט ימינה

On Sunday evening, unless a last-minute defector ruins everything, Naftali Bennett will be sworn in as Israel’s 13th prime minister.

At 49, he will be 22 years younger than the man he is replacing, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also Bennett’s first boss in politics.

He will not be the youngest prime minister in Israeli history, however; that record still belongs to Mr Netanyahu, who first came to power in 1996 at the age of 46. But Mr Bennett is breaking other records. He will be the first kippah-wearing, outwardly religious prime minister and the first leader of a small party – his currently has only six Knesset seats – to make it to the top job in Israeli politics.

Naftali Bennett is a highly ambitious man who certainly saw himself becoming prime minister one day when he joined the then-Leader of Opposition Netanyahu’s team as unpaid chief of staff. But this is not how he saw it coming about.

Back in 2006, it was his intention to join Likud and use his position in the leader’s office to win a spot on the party’s candidate list in the next Knesset election. Bennett saw himself as being one day an heir to Netanyahu, who at the time he still worshiped. He had even named his eldest son, who had just been born, Yoni, after Netanyahu’s brother Jonathan Netanyahu who was killed in 1976 on the Entebbe raid.

Like many young Israeli men of his generation, Bennett had grown up enthralled by the myth of Yoni Netanyahu, who had left a comfortable life with his family in Philadelphia to serve in Israel’s most demanding combat units. It was only natural to him, after he had made a fortune in tech by his early thirties, to want to work with Yoni’s brother, Bibi, who had trod a similar path in life, before going on to a meteoric career as a diplomat and then prime minister.

Bennett arrived in Netanyahu’s office in 2006, during a nadir in Netanyahu’s political trajectory. He had suffered three consecutive defeats. His first term as prime minister ended in 1999 when he was beaten by Labour’s Ehud Barak. Then in 2003 he lost the battle for the Likud leadership to Ariel Sharon, the man he had installed himself as a caretaker leader, thinking he was too old and discredited to pose a threat to his return. And then in the 2006 election, Kadima – the party Sharon had founded a few months earlier – had nearly wiped out Likud (which had reverted to Netanyahu’s leadership after Sharon left), leaving it with a mere 12 seats, the party’s worst-ever result.

The new chief of staff, coming in to revive a failed operation, seemed at first the perfect fit. Netanyahu has always had a preference for religious aides, believing them to be more loyal. They shared a background in special forces. Plus, Bennett was a millionaire, a trait much admired by Netanyahu. But Bennett lasted only 18 months.

Booth sides seemed to have been at fault. Netanyahu’s veteran aides and confidants had hung on, despite his fall from power, out of personal loyalty. They didn’t take kindly to the brash political neophyte who tried to run the office as if it was a tech company. They began badmouthing him to the boss. If that wasn’t bad enough, Bennett soon fell foul of Sara Netanyahu, who demanded to be informed at all times of her husband’s whereabouts. Once he committed the cardinal mistake of answering her, “I work for your husband, not for you”, his days in the Netanyahu inner circle were numbered.

But Bennett was not a great success in that job on his own merits, either. The team’s core mission was to pave Netanyahu’s path back to power.

Bennett believed this would be through fomenting public anger at the way the Olmert government had mishandled the Second Lebanon War. He worked at organising and secretly funding “spontaneous” protests by IDF reservists.

But the protests petered out and Olmert persevered. In the end, it was parliamentary manoeuvring engineered by Likud whip Gideon Sa’ar, another architect of the incoming government, that secured Olmert’s downfall.

After falling out with Netanyahu, Bennett’s prospects within Likud were blocked. Netanyahu stymied his attempts to win a spot on the candidates’ list and then to be appointed director-general of the Intelligence Affairs Ministry. His friends expected him at that point to go back to the business world. There was no lack of offers or funds to invest in promising start-up companies. But Bennett still had his heart set on politics, and looking back at his earlier years, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Building to office

Naftali Bennett always needed to be in the lead. Born in Haifa in 1972 as the youngest of three sons of Jim and Myrna, who had emigrated a few years earlier from San Francisco, he claims to have been the one to convince his family that they needed to become more religious and keep Shabbat and kashrut. In his teens, he was a charismatic counsellor in Bnei Akiva, leading his charges on extended nature hikes and reading to them rousing excerpts from Yoni Netanyahu’s letters. The naturally pudgy boy was also working out fanatically, getting into peak physical shape for his next stage in life.

At 18 he joined the IDF and volunteered for Sayeret Matkal, the most elite of units and the one Yoni had commanded — and in which all three Netanyahu boys had served. After completing officer training two years later, he was given the choice of returning to Matkal, where he would be a special missions operator, or moving to the less prestigious commando unit, Maglan, and commanding a team. He was sorry to leave, but the choice was clear. Within two years he had been promoted to the rank of company commander.

But despite the admiration of his men, who would exert themselves nearly beyond their limits for him, and the prospect of a promising military career, he was beginning to chafe at the bit of authority. He found it difficult to take orders from more senior officers he didn’t always admire. By 24, he was a civilian (though he happily went back for lengthy stints as a reservist). He didn’t find much inspiration in his law and business administration studies at Hebrew University, either. But there was a much more interesting world waiting for him. A fellow student asked him to become a founder of Cyota, a startup which was developing software to enable banks to securely process online transactions. Of the original group of four, Bennett had the least technological or financial knowhow – practically none – but those were still the wild days of the dotcom bubble, when any exciting idea could secure financing. And besides, it was clear to them all that Bennett would be an ideal CEO. He had the self-confidence both to drive the new company’s employees and to approach potential investors and customers. He would have to move to the world’s largest financial centre in New York City, with his new wife Gilat. But he would make it work.

It would take five years, during which Cyota nearly went under twice and had to let go of most of its employees, but their product began to find favour with the banking industry, which was only starting to come to terms with e-commerce. In 2005, they were purchased by RSA Security for $145 million.

At 33, Bennett was a millionaire several times over. He could have remained in the tech sector and multiplied his fortune. He had an eye for the right sort of investments and has made at least two more successful “exits” in brief forays back in to business. But that wasn’t his life goal.

He had already proved that he could lead a successful company, so he didn’t need to prove it again. He returned to Israel, built a large house in Ra’anana and had four children with Gilat.

Getting to the top in politics, especially Israeli politics dominated by Netanyahu, who no longer saw in him a protégé, would take much longer. After failing to gain a foothold in Likud, his next political job was as CEO of YESHA Council settlers’ body (though he had lived in a settlement only for a few months; after marrying and before moving to the US).

He lasted there just over a year until the veteran council leaders tired of what they saw as his self-aggrandising publicity stunts.

He then founded a new party, The Israelis, together with his ally from Netanyahu’s office, Ayelet Shaked, who had left together with him. But only a month after its launch, he realised it would be easier to take over an existing party, the old National Religious Party, which despite renaming itself Jewish Home had failed to revive its fortunes.

Presenting himself as leader of the new young religious generation, Bennett swept aside the party grandees, winning the leadership by a landslide and taking Jewish Home to an impressive 12 seats in the 2013 election. His arrival in the Knesset coincided with that of Yair Lapid, the leader of centrist Yesh Atid. They quickly sealed “the pact of brothers,” insisting that Netanyahu take them both into his government.

But Bennett’s hopes of changing the party, attracting secular voters and detaching it from the rabbis, were to be dashed by a vengeful Netanyahu, who had developed an irrational hatred of Bennett, who he was forced to bring in to his coalition as first business and then education minister.

Netanyahu worked behind the scenes to set Jewish Home’s rabbis against Bennett and in the 2015 election focused on attracting the party’s voters, reducing Jewish Home’s tally to eight. After six years in Jewish Home, a frustrated Bennett split and formed New Right, which failed to even cross the electoral threshold in its first election of 2019.

It looked as if Netanyahu had vanquished him, with Bennett just one more in a long row of upstart rivals whose political careers had ended.

But then on 27 May, 2019, as Netanyahu was preparing to swear in his fifth government, Avigdor Lieberman, another former aide of Netanyahu, announced he would not be joining his coalition, plunging Israel into a series of seemingly unending election campaigns.

Bennett was to get another chance and with his fifth party in 13 years, Yamina, he got back in to the Knesset, winning in the second election enough seats to force Netanyahu to appoint him, until the next election, to his coveted post of defence minister. After the third election, Netanyahu fired him and banished him to opposition at the first chance. But now, finally, in an incredible turn of fortune and as the leader of a tiny party with just six seats, Bennett has manoeuvred himself, with a lot of help from the true architect of this new coalition, Yair Lapid, into pole position, where he is about to replace Netanyahu as prime minister.

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