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Naftali Bennett: who is Israel’s new prime minister?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s former protege has succeeded the long-term leader as head of coalition government

Naftali Bennett has been sworn in as Israel’s 13th prime minister following the ousting of his former ally Benjamin Netanyahu from the top job.

Technology millionaire-turned-politician Bennett draws his support from Yamina, a coalition of right-wing parties. But the ultranationalist new leader will preside over a fragile coalition spanning right-wing, centrist, left-wing and - in a first for Israel - an Arab party.

Bennett has had a “colourful career”, serving in the armed forces during the first intifada, before making his fortune in the tech sector, says The Times. He then worked for Netanyahu, but ultimately “fell foul of an inner circle of sycophantic advisers”, according to the newspaper.

Rise to the top

Bennett began his working life in a commando unit in the Israel Defense Force (IDF), serving as a special forces officer for six years after being drafted at the age of 18. After leaving the military, he founded a cybersecurity company and moved with his wife, Gilat, to New York, where he working as a chef while also cultivating potential investors. His hard work paid off: at the age of 33, Bennett’s firm was sold for $145m (£102m).

The future PM subsequently returned to Israel and volunteered to work for Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, who “initially took a shine to the eager executive”, says The Times. But after becoming Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Bennett “made an enemy” of his boss’s wife, Sara, “when he refused to update her on her husband’s whereabouts”.

“He was out on his ear in 18 months,” adds the paper.

Following a brief stint as CEO of a Jewish settler organisation, Bennett joined the right-wing Jewish Home party and swiftly rose to become its leader. Under his rule, the party won 12 seats in the 2013 election - a success that saw Netanyahu, despite his growing antagonism towards the younger man, appointing Bennett to be minister of diaspora affairs. He went on to serve as Netanyahu’s minister of education, from 2015 to 2019, and as minister of defence, from 2019 to 2020.

Right on track

Bennett is “a right-wing leader, a security hard liner, but at the same time very pragmatic”, according to Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, who served with him in the military.

The new PM shares Netanyahu’s “hawkish approach to the Middle East conflict”, but has “long positioned himself to the right” of his former boss, France 24 reports. Bennett “is opposed to Palestinian independence” and as his CV suggests, “strongly supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem”. 

He is firmly opposed to the reinstatement of the Iran Nuclear Deal, suggesting that attacks by the IDF on Iranian nuclear sites may continue under his rule. He is also an instinctive ally of the US, although his settler policies put him at odds with Joe Biden. 

Along with potential tensions with the US president, Bennett “faces a monumental challenge” in his new role as leader of a “government which is united only by its determination to oust” Netanyahu, says The Telegraph.

This government “must now turn its attention to security issues, economic recovery in the wake of the Covid pandemic, threats from Iran and a new relationship with Washington”, the newspaper continues. But with a majority of just 60-59 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, “passing any meaningful legislation will be an uphill battle” for the coalition, which “is already facing bitter divisions on totemic issues”.

And Bennett also faces the challenge of how to handle his predecessor’s legacy - and how to deal with Netanyahu in opposition. 

Israel’s longest serving leader has “continued to assail” the government, says The Times of Israel. Addressing the Knesset yesterday, Netanyahu said: “I will fight daily against this terrible, dangerous left-wing government in order to topple it. With God’s help, it will happen a lot earlier than you think it will.”

On key foreign policy areas, “the Bennett government has signalled that there will be few departures from the Netanyahu era”, The Telegraph says. However, aping the former PM’s positions will not stop Netanyahu’s supporters from branding Bennett “a traitor”, France 24 adds.

Prior to the election, Bennett pledged not to join a coalition that included left-wingers or Arabs. In going back on his word in order to oust Netanyahu, the new leader has “angered many of his old right-wing allies”, The Times says.

Bennett has openly displaying his ultranationalist values in the past, bragging of killing “a lot of Arabs” while serving in the IDF. But “those close to him” predicted that “to get to power, he would prove malleable”, the paper adds.

As he now takes over at the top, his government’s “razor-thin majority” is likely to see the far-right leader focusing “on domestic issues that don’t stir too much controversy”, The Telegraph reports.

Indeed, Bennett is an astute political operator and not just a right-wing ideologue, writes Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer.

The new PM is “a Jewish nationalist but not really dogmatic”, Pfeffer continues. “A bit religious, but certainly not devout. A military man who prefers the comforts of civilian urban life and a high-tech entrepreneur who isn’t looking to make any more millions. A supporter of the Greater Land of Israel but not a settler.”

And given his marriage of convenience coalition, “he may well not be a lifelong politician either”.

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