Naftali Bennett comes of age

The man once dismissed as Netanyahu’s imitation has morphed into his most potent threat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his defense minister, Naftali Bennett, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on November 17, 2019 (photo credit: GALI TIBBON POOL/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his defense minister, Naftali Bennett, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on November 17, 2019
(photo credit: GALI TIBBON POOL/REUTERS)

The eulogies proved premature.

A mere 18 months since an electoral trouncing that seemed like the end of his public career, Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett is back in the saddle.

As his unique biography defies political precedent, social convention, and religious writ, the man who once was seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s poor imitation now appears positioned to unseat him.

The modern Orthodox hi-tech entrepreneur, who entered politics a mere eight years ago when he was elected to head the Bayit Yehudi party, has managed in that relatively short period to hold three ministerial posts, spend seven years in the security cabinet, survive five months as a political has-been, and resurrect as a militant oppositionist and a prime minister in waiting.

Bennett was a political oddity from the outset. Heading a movement whose leaders and members, since its establishment in 1902, were invariably observant, Bennett included in its Knesset list a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked, an electrical engineer who was Netanyahu’s bureau chief when Bennett was his chief of staff.

The party, which since 1977 lost much of its following to Likud, wanted to be led to new social realms and political pastures. Bennett would deliver these goods.

Unlike his predecessors, Bennett came from the business world. Holding law and business degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he joined Israel’s vibrant venture-capital industry, establishing with several partners information-security start-up, Cyota, for which he worked four years in Manhattan before the company was sold in 2005 for $145 million. Bennett later repeated that feat, when another company he helped lead, Soluto, was sold in 2009 for $130 million.

It was something that had never been seen in Israel’s religious politics – a party leader who is not a career politician, or a rabbi or an educator, but a self-made millionaire. Coupled with an impressive military record, as a commando officer in the same Sayeret Matkal where Netanyahu served, Bennett won 12 Knesset seats in 2013, a figure religious-Zionism’s party had not seen in 36 years.

At the same time, Bennett also displayed telegenic abilities, speaking the unaccented English he acquired as a child of American parents, a real estate broker and an executive in a nonprofit, who moved to Israel in 1967, five years before Naftali, the youngest of their three boys, was born.

Bennett entered the Knesset as a celebrated meteor when he surprised again, this time by creating an alliance with that election’s other superstar, liberal crusader Yair Lapid, who won 19 seats with the party he established the previous year, Yesh Atid.

The pair’s insistence that each of them be admitted into the government cornered Netanyahu, because it meant forcing Likud to leave its ultra-Orthodox allies outside the coalition.

Netanyahu now treated both Lapid and Bennett as enemies. That is why hardly two years into that government’s creation he called an early election, in which both men were indeed humbled. Lapid’s following was nearly halved and he was stranded in the opposition, while Bennett lost a third of the 12 seats which had been the crown of his political success.

Bennett’s conclusion was that he must transcend religious politics’ confines so he can reach non-Orthodox voters. This inclination became manifest in 2015, when he tried to avoid becoming education minister, traditionally modern-Orthodoxy’s most coveted office, and tried instead to become foreign minister, a position no religious politician had ever held, or sought.

Netanyahu would not make Bennett foreign minister, apparently to deprive him of that position’s global publicity. Bennett thus became education minister despite himself, but even there he tried to cultivate a post-sectarian identity, launching a flagship program to encourage high-school students to major in math and physics, arguing this was crucial for Israel’s technological success.

The quest to break religious politics’ shackles was not just political expediency. While Bennett identifies as modern-Orthodox, issues of religious legislation were never his passion. Moreover, his personal religious practice is less rigorous than that of other observant politicians.

Bennett shakes women’s hands, and his wife Gilat – an originally secular parenting adviser – does not cover her hair.

For several years, his media adviser was a lesbian, and he thinks gays should be granted “everyone else’s civil rights.”

Following the massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Bennett attended a memorial ceremony there despite it being non-Orthodox, a move previously unthinkable in Israel’s religious parties.

Most significantly, Bennett supported wholeheartedly the plan to open a segment of the Western Wall for egalitarian and non-Orthodox prayers. The plan was later shelved due to ultra-Orthodox pressure, but Bennett’s religious moderation was made plain.

It was against this backdrop of post-sectarian politics and unfulfilled ambition that Bennett made his biggest political gamble.

WITH AN early election called in fall 2018, Bennett stunned the public with a dramatic announcement that he was breaking away from his own party in order to establish a new party of religious and secular conservatives.
The gambit was bold and its failure seemed total, so much so that the new party, Yamina (rightward), didn’t even cross the electoral threshold.

Bennett’s political career was now eulogized, and he indeed seemed set to vanish, when the 21st Knesset dissolved itself without even creating a government. His political career was thus resuscitated, but the damage to his image still seemed irreparable, even after he managed to reenter the Knesset.  

The failure to enter the Knesset enhanced Bennett’s image of a superficial, frivolous, and sloganeering summer-camp counselor, whose bilingual sound-bites represented his alter-ego Netanyahu’s coating without the depth.
That negative impression was enhanced by an episode from 2015, when Bennett festively presented soccer legend Eli Ohana, now 56, as a Knesset candidate on the Bayit Yehudi list.  

Ohana, who starred for the fabled Betar Jerusalem club before proceeding to even bigger stardom in Europe, is a product, symbol, and darling of the capital’s non-Ashkenazi working class.

That was the wise part of the move. The other part was that Bennett forgot his party’s rabbis, and what professional soccer meant to them.

It was one thing for them to cohabitate with privately secular people like Shaked, but an entirely different thing to share space with a man whose career was built on soccer’s weekly packing of stadiums in the middle of the Shabbat. Taken aback by the outcry he caused Ohana withdrew his candidacy, while Bennett came across as populist, hasty, and superficial.

That image is gone.

APPROACHING 49, Bennett now exudes an aura of responsibility, impartiality and balance while polls promise him an astronomic 22 Knesset seats.

The turning point in his public standing was the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic with his six-month stint as defense minister, which ended with the current government’s formation.

Back when he made Bennett defense minister last year, Netanyahu was so scornful that he said publicly he had no intention of leaving him in that sensitive office after the last election. There was a history behind that disparagement.

Though no one seems to know when and why Bennett fell from grace, hostility between the boss and his former aide became such that Netanyahu reportedly tried, when Bennett was education minister, to get news website Walla to claim Bennett’s wife was once the chef at a non-kosher restaurant.

Bennett tweeted “shame on you” to Netanyahu and demanded an apology to his wife. Netanyahu never apologized. With such bad blood, all assumed that Bennett’s position as defense minister will prove as anecdotal as it was accidental. But then the pandemic came.

While others were slow to respond, Bennett went to work. He had the IDF supply the health system with technology and research, he initiated the usage of hotels as sanatoriums for corona patients, and he fought for the creation of a national diagnosis center that would perform 100,000 daily checkups.

It was a display of resourcefulness at a time when others seemed inert.  Yet Netanyahu kept his defense minister at arm’s length, and also heeded the health system’s demand that it run the war on the plague, rather than the IDF, despite the army’s possession of the necessary resources and plans.

Bennett was now seen as a victim of Netanyahu’s phobias. So did the national interest, or in Bennett’s words in November: “This is a terrible government that places politics ahead of substance.”

Equipped with his former boss’s economic understanding, English proficiency, military credentials, liberal leanings, and secularly articulated hawkishness, Bennett thus established himself as a new Bibi, without the legal entanglements.

This is the backdrop against which Naftali Bennett, despite heading a minuscule Knesset faction of six lawmakers, is soaring in polls.

Yes, the road ahead of him remains long and rocky.

Netanyahu has yet to go, Likud will remain a potent rival, and Bennett can’t win centrist votes, because his religious moderation is offset by his militancy on foreign affairs, reflected most recently in his statement that he prefers the West Bank’s annexation over diplomatic relations with Bahrain. Bennett’s alliance with the Messianic and anti-gay loudmouth MK Bezalel Smotrich is also a strategic burden.

Still, Bennett is establishing himself as a potential leader of the Right and a legitimate prime-ministerial contender; an observant politician whose agenda includes everything – from health and economics to diplomacy and defense – except faith.