No one in Israel expected to one day see Naftali Bennett sitting in the prime minister’s seat in the Knesset (Parliament). Situated in the most extreme orbit of Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc, whom he always used to overtake on the right with a radical speech, he has held five portfolios in successive coalition cabinets since he entered the Chamber, just eight years ago, at the head of a minority force.
With only seven seats to his credit of his Yamina party (radical nationalist and religious right), he has now managed to place himself on the faithful balance of power as an essential arbiter, courted by both Netanyahu and the leader of the opposition bloc, the centrist Yair Lapid.
Both offered to jointly lead the Government through a rotation pact in office, but the second was more generous by giving him the first shift. Lapid was also his “brother” since the two agreed in the Executive between 2013 and 2015, and inspired him much more confidence than the acting prime minister, famous for systematically breaching agreements with his partners.
At 49, Bennett embodies the image of the ideal of the achiever in Israeli society. A young military man in a prestigious commando unit that operated behind enemy ranks, a successful entrepreneur in technology businesses – who made him a billionaire in New York in 2005 – and now a new head of government, the second youngest in the country’s history, precisely after Netanyahu. Before he decided to take the job away from him, the Likud leader had also been his political mentor. He called him to direct his internal cabinet as leader of the great conservative party, in opposition, between 2006 and 2008.
Bennett soon took off on his own – farther to the right, of course – as head of the Yesh Council, the main organization for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “As long as it is in my hand and I have the power and the ability to control, I will not give up an inch of the Land of Israel [un concepto en el que incluye Jerusalén Este y Cisjordania]”, He proclaimed last February, during the last of the four electoral campaigns that have taken place in Israel since 2019.” There never was a Palestinian state, “he often reiterates in his speeches.
But Bennett was never a settler on top of a barren hill in Judea and Samaria (Biblical denominations of the West Bank) and has preferred to live in Raanana. He assures, by the way, that he will continue with his wife and four children in their home in that affluent suburb located north of Tel Aviv. He does not anticipate living in the official Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu reigned for the past 12 years alongside his influential and controversial wife, Sara, and his eldest son, Yair, a hammer of opponents on social media.
The man who will lead the government during the first half of the legislature, at the head of a broad and heterogeneous coalition in which an Arab party appears for the first time, is an unknown for many in Israel and a great unknown abroad. His nationalist discourse with messianic overtones and frontally anti-Palestinian – he demanded the introduction of the death penalty for terrorists – has coincided with the exercise of a pragmatic management in the Economy, Education or Defense portfolios. From this last department, he directed part of the Government’s strategy to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Israel’s polarized caste society of seemingly irreconcilable tribes, Bennett now stands as a reuniting leader after the end of the divisive 71-year-old Netanyahu era. At the same time, his inauguration marks a generational change in power, along with his ally Lapid, 57. Both lived their youth after the Six Day War, which defined Israel’s regional military hegemony in 1967, and have reached maturity when the country has also become an economic and technological power.
The political career of the new prime minister has, however, been punctuated by continuous swings – branded opportunists by his rivals – and by conjunctural alliances with settler parties, ultra-rightists or religious Zionists. However, both the religious Bennett and his right arm and new Interior Minister, the laywoman Ayelet Shaked, try to flee from extremism and show effective management.
Presiding over a Cabinet now together with reformist centrists, Labor, pacifists and even Islamists is presented as a mortal leap, of unpredictable duration, in his political career. Everyone will be ideologically to his left at the table of the Council of Ministers.
Born in Haifa (north of the Hebrew state) into a Jewish family who emigrated from the United States, Bennett symbolizes the contradictions of contemporary Israel as an orthodox Jew of a modern rite who is at the same time tolerant of sexual diversity. Since he stormed the Knesset, Bennet has almost always been a minor ally in Netanyahu’s conservative bloc, who at times tried to engulf his voters. He even managed to keep him out of the legislative chamber in the April 2019 legislative elections until he managed to regain his seat and those of his party in the September elections of the same year.
His veto of the call for a fifth election since 2019, a strategy that Netanyahu favored to stay safe from his corruption trial, has been key to accepting the offer of the previous opposition bloc to head a broad-coalition Executive. The secular centrist Lapid, who will relieve him at the helm of power in two years, with the right of veto according to the pacts signed between eight parties, is the true father of the “Government of change” that has brought down Netanyahu after 12 years of mandates.
Bennett will now have to demonstrate his spirit as the first president who covers his head with a kippah (minuscule, in his case) in the history of Israel, and as an ultra-nationalist hawk theorist that Washington and Brussels demand to stop the expansion of the settlements.
Jewish nationalist march through the Old City
Netanyahu has followed in the footsteps of his US ally Donald Trump and refused to participate in an official handover ceremony to his successor on Monday, as is tradition in Israel. The conservative leader did, however, attend a closed-door meeting with the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, at the headquarters of the Government to inform him of pending decisions to be adopted by the Executive. The meeting was scheduled to last for more than an hour, but Netanyahu left the headquarters of the Government when not even 30 minutes had elapsed since its inception.
The outgoing prime minister also affirmed in a meeting of Likud, his party, with his ultra-Orthodox and far-right partners that the new Israeli Cabinet was supported by “hatred, sectarianism and the desire for power.” “It has little room for maneuver and it will fall sooner than is believed,” he assured the 53 parliamentarians who make up the right-wing bloc, now in opposition. The government coalition won a narrow majority of 60 votes among the 120 seats that make up the Knesset on Sunday.
In one of its first decisions, the Bennett government approved a controversial Jewish nationalist march through the Old City of Jerusalem. The parade of extremists and groups of settlers with Israeli flags will not cross the Muslim quarter this Tuesday, as in previous years, but will border it at the emblematic Damascus Gate on its way to the Western Wall.
The Army has deployed several batteries of the Iron Dome missile defense system in Jerusalem due to the threat of Hamas to fire rockets if the nationalist march continues in the vicinity of the Al Aqsa mosque. On May 10, the parade was already suspended due to the launch of rockets from Gaza against Jerusalem, an action that triggered an escalation of war for 11 days.