Naftali Bennett’s gradual, patient mission to succeed Netanyahu

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Naftali Bennett’s gradual, patient mission to succeed Netanyahu

Our Jerusalem contributor Nathan Jeffay charts the rise of a man he first interviewed in a Ra'anana living room 11 years ago

Naftali Bennett, as Defence Minister in 2019, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (Photo: Reuters)
Naftali Bennett, as Defence Minister in 2019, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (Photo: Reuters)

When I first profiled Naftali Bennett, 11 years ago, a prominent settler told me she considered him an “outsider.” Today, as he holds the balance of power in his hands, nobody could say this.  

Bennett, who had chatted to me in his Ra’anana living room in 2010 about his high-tech success and political hopes, had just become CEO of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organisation of settlements. “He’s like a U.N. spectator — he’s an outsider,” grumbled settler leader Daniella Weiss when I asked her about the choice. 

But Bennett used his Yesha Council post to jump into politics just as the main pro-settler party, Jewish Home, was in dire straits. He then started blurring the lines of right-wing Israeli politics. For the 2013 election he placed a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked, high on the list of this party that had always been dominated by kippah-wearing men. 

He was starting to carve out a niche for Likud 2.0 — a political force that could attract right-wing voters, religious and secular, which is not under the control of Benjamin Netanyahu. He has positioned it slightly to the right of Likud, but there is no major ideological gulf.  

Indeed, Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, and the parting of ways is said to have been about personalities — especially a clash between Bennett and Netanyahu’s wife Sara — not about principles.  

Had egos played out differently, Bennett could well have been a senior Bibi ally in Likud, but instead he ended up creating a Bibi alternative.  

Bennett has continued this path: toning down his religious image and reducing the influence of rabbis on his political life, championing mainstream causes like efficient pandemic management, and assiduously avoiding having his current party, Yamina, pegged as a religious faction.  

He has cast himself as relatable, holding babies on election day, and even getting his mum to star in an election video. He wants to be the man who can rival Bibi’s smooth talking English (his parents are American-born) and leadership skills, and beat him in the altruism stakes.   

Bennett catapulted himself into politics at a time when right-wing voters felt the only alternatives to Likud were Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu, which were seen as sectarian parties for the religious and Russian-speakers respectively.  

He changed all that, and inspired copycat attempts. Gideon Saar’s departure from Likud and establishment of the Likud-esque New Hope for this election was an attempt to follow him.  

Will Bennett translate his current strength into real political power in the next Knesset? That remains to be seen. But this isn’t the real question.  

Look at Bennett’s rise over the last decade, and it’s clear he is playing the long game. Sure, he cares greatly about faring well in the upcoming coalition negotiations, but in a sense the current situation — that the “outsider” from Ranaana holds the fate of the Israeli right and the country in general in his hands — represents the recognition and prominence he has long wanted. 

He would certainly like a senior ministerial post in the next government. But all indications are that however Bennett plays things in the coming days and months, he considers it a stepping stone period — a time when the Israeli public recognises the extent of his influence, and he aims at the prime ministership. 


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