Naftali Bennett: Israel’s hardline kingmaker
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a social media savvy former entrepreneur and vocal opponent of a Palestinian state, is the new kingmaker of Israeli politics with a key role in the government.
The 43-year-old’s meteoric rise has turned his nationalist-religious party into a political force able to demand several key portfolios in return for joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming coalition.
The former special forces commando took Israeli politics by storm in 2012 when he became head of the Jewish Home, which was flailing with just three seats in the 120-member parliament.
Bennett increased the hardline party’s representation in the Knesset fourfold and became economy minister.
He is set to become education minister in the new government.
A son of American immigrants, the former high-tech entrepreneur with near-perfect English sold his start-up in 2005 for $145 million (110 million euros) and went into politics a year later, heading Netanyahu’s staff when his Likud party was in opposition.
As economy minister under Netanyahu between 2013-2015, Bennett further honed the communicator skills that helped propel him into government, using social networks to connect with voters in Hebrew, English and French.
His social media posts address people as “brothers” and “sisters” and use self-effacing humour.
Addressing a right-wing rally before the March 17 elections, a guitar-playing Bennett led thousands in song.
A former head of the Yesha settlers council, Bennett promotes a plan for Israel to annex around 60 percent of the West Bank and to grant the Palestinians limited autonomy in the remaining territory.
Although his party largely represents Israeli settlers, Bennett and his wife, Galit — a confectioner who grew up secular — raise their four children in Raanana, a bourgeoisie city in central Israel.
– ‘Terrorists should be killed’ –
As economy minister, he trumpeted his work on domestic socio-economic issues for all parts of society, including Arabs.
He opposed the US-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians but did not torpedo them.
His controversial opinions led left-wing newspaper Haaretz to call him a “nuisance” who must be removed from the government in a 2013 editorial.
It cited his remarks made on Facebook that “terrorists should be killed, not released,” as Israel freed Palestinian militants as part of the peace talks in July 2013.
He also said there was no Israeli occupation in the West Bank since “there was never a Palestinian state here,” and that the conflict with the Palestinians could not be resolved and must be endured like a piece of “shrapnel in the buttocks”.
In October 2014, Bennett wrote that “even when a British Muslim beheads a British Christian, there will always be those who blame the Jews,” after US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace was fuelling extremism, following an Islamic State group beheading.
This outspoken approach has drawn a strong rebuke from the Palestinians, with Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi saying on Thursday the Jewish Home “represents the most extreme and racist elements within Israeli society”.
Bennett largely managed to refrain from creating tensions with Netanyahu under the previous government, despite a history of bad blood between the two which led to the end of Bennett’s position as Netanyahu’s chief of staff in 2008.
As Israel prepared for the March snap elections, the premier said the Jewish Home would be “natural partners” in his next coalition.
After winning eight seats, Bennett felt his party would be first in line when the horse-trading began.
In the event Netanyahu first struck deals with two ultra-Orthodox parties as well as the centrist-right Kulanu.
But when outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman unexpectedly pulled out of coalition talks, Bennett was cast into the role of kingmaker, enabling Netanyahu to secure a 61-seat majority.
After accepting the education portfolio for himself, Bennett secured the justice ministry for Ayelet Shaked, a young secular Israeli at the forefront of efforts to curb the powers of the Supreme Court.