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Naftali Bennett, the political gambler about to beat the house, oust Netanyahu

If all goes according to plan, by Sunday evening Israel will have a new prime minister: 49-year-old Naftali Bennett.

Bennett is a study in contrasts. Born to American immigrant parents, he doesn’t consider himself part of Israel’s English-speaking community; an ex-commando and West Bank annexationist, he lives in liberal-leaning suburban Ra’anana; a successful tech millionaire, he has little expertise in computer science.

His unlikely rise to power, too, is a tale of unexpected twists, turns and contradictions.

Bennett was born in Haifa in March 1972, the youngest of three children to American immigrant parents Jim and Myrna, who moved to Israel from San Francisco in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War. Besides two short family stints in San Francisco and Montreal in his youth, he spent much of his childhood in the northern city. Ambitious from the start, he tried out for the army’s most prestigious commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. He made it past the grueling trials and served in the elite force and then in the Maglan reconnaissance unit.

He left full-time military service after six years, in 1996. Three years later, at the tender age of 27, he was living in Manhattan and founding his first technology company, Cyota, which sold six years later for $145 million.

A rocky relationship with Netanyahu from the start

A self-made multimillionaire by 33, Bennett’s pivot toward politics came in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon War. Bennett served as a reservist in Maglan in that war, participating in operations behind enemy lines to destroy Hezbollah cells and rocket launchers. As he would later tell it, the high command’s confused strategy and the political echelon’s strategic indecision in that war, as seen from the perspective of a soldier on the ground, kindled in him a burning desire for a national leadership role.

Like Avigdor Liberman before him, he entered politics in late 2006 as an aide to then-MK Benjamin Netanyahu, who was head of the opposition during the Olmert government. And like Liberman, Bennett ran Netanyahu’s primary race to lead Likud (Liberman in 1995, Bennett in 2007), would go on to serve as Netanyahu’s top political aide, and then, in 2008 — again, just like Liberman — would have a falling out with Netanyahu and find himself out of a job.

But Bennett found his footing quickly. Two years later, in 2010, he and Netanyahu were already on opposite sides of a political fight. In January 2010, Bennett was appointed director-general of the umbrella advocacy group of West Bank settlements, the Yesha Council, while Netanyahu was ordering a sweeping freeze on construction in settlements at the behest of the Obama administration.

While he led the Yesha Council, Bennett also founded the My Israel activist movement together with Ayelet Shaked, who had served with him in Netanyahu’s office from 2006 to 2008.

In November 2012, Bennett and Shaked used the platform of the My Israel organization to mount a primary challenge inside the floundering religious-Zionist party Jewish Home. Bennett swept to victory with over two-thirds of the vote, and then swept the right-wing party itself to an astounding showing of 12 seats in the 2013 general election.

A breakneck pace

As Bennett stepped onto the national political stage in 2013, at the age of 41, many already took note of the frenetic speed of his rise: An elite but short six-year military career, a wildly successful but scarcely seven-year-long high-tech career, a political climb from Netanyahu aide to settlements advocate to religious-Zionism’s ballot-box champion that itself stretched across scarcely seven years — he did everything on full throttle and nothing, it seemed, for very long.

Indeed, just as he entered the Knesset in 2013, news came of the sale for over $100 million of Soluto, a company he had helmed for the brief period between leaving Netanyahu’s side and entering into his Yesha Council role.

That frenetic pace hasn’t let up.

Bennett’s strong showing in 2013 spooked Netanyahu, who did not forget their falling out and began to seek ways to crush the popular upstart. During coalition talks in late January, Netanyahu turned to Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich in a bid to avoid inviting Bennett into his coalition.

Bennett, in turn, formed a union with another neophyte upstart — popular talk show host Yair Lapid, who had established his fledgling Yesh Atid party the year before and, as much to his own surprise as to everyone else’s, won a whopping 19 seats at the ballot box. Together, Bennett and Lapid controlled 31 seats, equal to the 31 won by the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu joint list led by Netanyahu at the time.

Netanyahu had no choice. Bennett was appointed the economy minister and Lapid the finance minister. The Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism were shunted aside in favor of the new reformers.

It was a stunning first showing for Bennett, both at the ballot box and at the coalition negotiations.

Decline

But it wasn’t to last.

Netanyahu broke up the government early, and in the 2015 snap election Bennett’s Jewish Home dropped from 12 seats to eight — still enough to wrangle from Netanyahu the post of education minister.

In the four years of that government, and increasingly acutely in 2018, Bennett grew frustrated with the Jewish Home party he had led through two elections. It was an old party — Jewish Home was a new name for the old National Religious Party — built on old institutions and an aging activist base.

But it was Jewish Home’s spiritual leaders who most rankled for the independent-minded ex-high-tech CEO. Religious figures such as Rabbi Haim Druckman had a habit of speaking with Netanyahu directly, over Bennett’s head, and then trying to pressure Bennett at Netanyahu’s behest.

In November 2018, after the latest Liberman-Netanyahu spat saw Liberman resign as defense minister, Bennett publicly demanded the post for himself. And just as publicly, Netanyahu refused.

Bennett viewed himself as a competitor to Netanyahu, not a retainer to be called to heel by rabbinic fiat. With Netanyahu seemingly trying to hold him back and Jewish Home’s rabbinic echelon seemingly willing to play along, Bennett rebelled.

The New Right

In December, Bennett and Shaked walked out on the party — Bennett’s stint in Jewish Home, as in most things, had lasted just over six years — to establish the New Right party.

It was the latest in a long list of all-or-nothing gambles for the restless Bennett. This time, it failed.

In the April 2019 election, the first of Israel’s four polls in two years, Bennett crashed out of the Knesset, narrowly failing to clear the 3.25% vote threshold.

Netanyahu had campaigned aggressively against New Right and was initially satisfied with the result. Bennett’s independent run had backfired.

It was only on May 30, as it became clear in the final hours before he had to return his mandate to the president, that Netanyahu realized his efforts to eliminate New Right had backfired on him too. He now lacked the right-wing seats to form a government. Netanyahu had tried to crush Bennett, and discovered too late that he’d needed him.

In desperation, Netanyahu engineered September 2019’s redo election. He blamed Bennett’s political adventurism for his failure to form a government and was determined to crush him once and for all at the ballot box. Netanyahu even went to the trouble of firing Bennett from the interim government in June.

But despite those efforts, the first-ever redo election in Israel’s history gave Bennett his second chance.

A second chance

Chastened by his April failure, Bennett allied New Right’s slate to Rafi Peretz’s Jewish Home and Betzalel Smotrich’s National Union, and even agreed that Shaked, not he, would hold the top spot — though the alliance agreed he would have the top cabinet posting of the list. Yamina won seven seats in the September 2019 election, and a weakened Bennett, now at fourth place on the list, returned to the Knesset.

It is one of the most astonishing parts of Bennett’s story: From the initial success of 12 seats in 2013, Bennett’s ballot-box showing has steadily dropped to 8 and then 7. Yet despite that decline, Bennett’s political influence had only grown. He’d learned to play the game.

Scarcely three weeks after the September race, on November 8, exactly a year after his demand to be appointed defense minister was rebuffed, Netanyahu suddenly agreed to appoint him to the defense post.

What changed? Netanyahu did poorly in the September race and began to fear that Bennett might cross the aisle and join with Gantz’s Blue and White to oust him from power. Bennett played that fear for all it was worth.

But the September race, too, failed to produce a government, and the Yamina alliance ran again — this time with Bennett at the lead — in the March 2020 elections. It won six seats.

Opposition

Bennett’s stint as defense minister was a short one. On May 17, 2020, after Netanyahu and Gantz formed their new unity coalition and Netanyahu no longer needed the Yamina leader, Bennett took leave of the post and headed to the opposition.

Thus began Bennett’s first-ever experience of life in the opposition. It was another gamble. He was betting that the unity government wouldn’t survive, and he would be better positioned to take advantage of its collapse as an outside critic.

By the time the March 2021 election rolled around, Bennett’s newest, most ambitious gamble was ready: a campaign focused on openly challenging a “failed” Netanyahu for power. Bennett shed no tears when Betzalel Smotrich led his National Union faction out of the Yamina alliance in January 2021 to run alongside the Netanyahu camp.

Bennett expected Netanyahu to once again try to crush him, and was not surprised when the prime minister threw all his support and political acumen behind Smotrich’s fledgling run.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

After initially polling at over 20 seats in the leadup to the March election, Bennett was polling below 10 by election day. A nation angry at Netanyahu’s incompetent handling of pandemic lockdowns had changed its mind as the Netanyahu-instigated world-leading vaccination drive took off.

Bennett openly campaigned for prime minister, and had reason to believe it was within his reach as long as polls gave him 20 seats and predicted he would hold the deciding vote between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps in the new Knesset.

But what could he accomplish with the mere seven seats he actually won on election day? Could a seven-seat party — by May reduced to six with the departure of MK Amichai Chikli — demand the premiership?

Naftali Bennett, as always, didn’t blink. He leaped.

To his critics, there’s something galling about the fact that Bennett is set to take the prime minister’s seat while leading a mere six-seat faction that now fails even to clear the electoral threshold in most polls.

But it’s hard to think of a more characteristically Bennett-esque act. A driven soldier, a self-made tech millionaire, a political activist turned political leader, a fast-moving, ever-striving, ambitious and fickle and astoundingly confident man — Israel’s newest leader is a brazen risk-taker and gambler with an unusual penchant for beating the house.

Source: Haviv Rettig Gur – TOI