How the Lebanon War led Bennett from hi-tech millions to politics

A start-up millionaire completely changed his life’s course after fighting in Lebanon in 2006; Naftali Bennett talks about how the war pushed him into politics.

Naftali Bennett called up for reserve duty in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Naftali Bennett called up for reserve duty in the Second Lebanon War in 2006
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett may be the most outspoken minister in the security cabinet. He doesn’t reveal what’s said behind closed doors, but he’s often the only minister to publicly make his opinions known about what’s being discussed and his tactical suggestions of what Israel should do, as he did last weekend, releasing a 10-point plan to curb the current wave of terrorism.
Bennett has faced criticism for his outspokenness about strategy and has even delineated specific points citing what he thinks the army and government should do. He has also spoken to soldiers and officers on his own initiative, but he’s convinced from his experiences that his way is the right way. He’s willing to threaten the coalition over it, like he did in late May, refusing to have his Bayit Yehudi party vote to approve Avigdor Liberman as defense minister until security cabinet ministers were given more regular updates from the National Security Council.
The way Bennett sees it, being informed and voicing opinions that could rattle the military brass or his fellow politicians is the only way to make sure the right decisions are being made for the country and that the people sitting in the security cabinet room don’t fall victim to groupthink. It’s the only way that the failings of the Second Lebanon War, in which he and the soldiers that he commanded saw firsthand the damage an ineffective security cabinet can cause, won’t happen again.
When the Second Lebanon War broke out, politics was the furthest thing from Bennett’s mind, but the war was the turning point that put him on his current trajectory.
Six months earlier, Bennett became a millionaire when his antifraud software company Cyota sold for $145 million.
“I was living the good life. Everything was great,” Bennett recalled, speaking in his Knesset office.
“Israeli hi-tech was my passion, and I wanted to start a major company. My plan was to found the Israeli Nokia.”
Bennett’s goodbye party at Cyota was on July 11, 2006. On July 12, soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were captured by Hezbollah, and Bennett was called up to reserve duty.
As a deputy company commander for soldiers whose job it was to search and destroy Hezbollah rocket launchers, Bennett found a Lebanon that was very different from that of his earlier army experiences.
“The Hezbollah I knew in the ’90s was on always on the defensive. Now, they said they had 30,000 rockets. We heard about ‘nature preserves,’ protected bunkers in bushes that were full of rockets. They were very ready [for war],” he recounted.
Bennett also found a different IDF, one that was less certain of what it was supposed to be doing. After he was given several disparate plans, he told his soldiers to stop preparing the missions, which kept changing anyway, and instead they carried out exercises to be fit in the field.
Two days before the soldiers were supposed to enter Lebanon, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert announced his “consolidation plan” – unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank – which he said victory in Lebanon would bring about.
“It felt like a punch in the stomach that our prime minister said if we win the war, he’ll evacuate Judea and Samaria. It was a shocking statement. One of my soldiers was evacuated from Homesh [in northern Samaria, when the settlement was given up during the 2005 disengagement], and he didn’t know what to do. I convinced a group of soldiers who were hesitant that we’re fighting for the State of Israel, not for the government,” Bennett said.
The moment that led Bennett to turn to politics was when he felt his division was given an “absurd” operational plan that he thought could not succeed. He talked to his battalion and division commanders, who told him there was nothing to do about it. Through a mutual friend, Bennett contacted a senior minister in the security cabinet, one with years of experience in security, and the minister told him that Bennett might be right in his assessment, but that one minister has no influence.
After a week in Lebanon, destroying rockets but not enough to make Hezbollah stop firing on Israeli civilians, and Bennett and his soldiers felt like their work was “pointless,” he recalled, and that they had been sent on “futile missions.”
Motivated to effect change, Bennett joined reservists in demonstrations after the war, and soon took a job as then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
“At the time, I believed in Netanyahu and my goal was to make him prime minister. I thought that if he’s there, and I’m by his side, I can have an influence so that the leadership of Israel is serious, thorough and responsible,” Bennett said. “That goal took me higher than I expected, and [now] I’m in the security cabinet, influencing the most significant decisions for Israel’s existence.”
Bennett points out that, by law, the security cabinet commands the IDF, not the prime minister or the defense minister alone, which is why he won’t let himself become like the minister he spoke to during the Second Lebanon War.
“I see my job in the cabinet as representing the soldiers and commanders in the field who are unwilling to compromise and accept unclear commands. I want exact, real information,” he said.
The education minister points to 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, when he went to speak to commanders and soldiers, and came back to the security cabinet calling to destroy Hamas tunnels, a threat about which the cabinet had not been informed.
“I was not willing to just hear things from middlemen. I went to the field myself, and learned, and was able to convince the cabinet – three weeks too late, I think – of the need to destroy the tunnels before there is an even more horrible attack,” he recalled.
An informed security cabinet saves lives, Bennett argued.
“My duty is not to be the cabinet’s rubber stamp. It’s to get information and make the right decisions in real-time,” he said. “I saw in the Second Lebanon War what happens with a blind cabinet, and I saw it again in Protective Edge, and I won’t let it happen again.”
That’s why Bennett placed the fate of the coalition in the balance weeks ago, until he began getting more regular security briefings, and now he is satisfied he got what he asked for.
“When I raise a hand to send soldiers into harm’s way, I have to know that there are no other alternatives, that we did everything necessary to prepare, and that the soldiers have all the tools to win,” he said. “As long as I’m in the cabinet, I will do all I can to make sure decisions are made thoroughly, after weighing all alternatives.”