Naftali Bennett: The Israeli nationalist politician who could determine Netanyahu's future

In the aftermath of the March 23 Israeli general elections, religious nationalist politician Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina party is set to win seven parliamentary seats, could determine the political future of his former boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following Israel's latest parliamentary elections this week, Netanyahu might be unable to a form a government without the support of Bennett, his ultra-hawkish former ally turned arch critic.

In his enviable position as kingmaker, Bennett has not yet revealed his intentions while his party, Yamina – "rightwards" in Hebrew – is projected to win around seven seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset. This makes him critical for both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, which have clashed ferociously on the campaign trail.

"Under the power you have entrusted in me, I will act with only one guiding principle: what is good for Israel," Bennett told supporters at a Yamina election night event Tuesday. In what appeared to be deliberately vague comments, he added, "Now is the time to heal, and heal the rifts within the nation."

It was an all-purpose message that could be interpreted any way since the 49-year-old Israeli politician can either sink the prime minister politically by joining an anti-Netanyahu coalition composed of left, centrist and dissidents from the right, or save him by negotiating – from a position of strength.

"Naftali Bennett risks selling out, at a high cost, to Benjamin Netanyahu," noted Alain Dieckhoff, director of the Centre for International Studies at the Paris-based Sciences-Po university, in an interview with FRANCE 24. "The latter risks having to offer Bennett and his close allies very important ministries such as the defence ministry – which he has already occupied."

Netanyahu's post-election horse-trading could be intense, according to Dieckhoff: "Without Naftali Bennett, it's almost impossible to form a coalition. Everything will depend on Benjamin Netanyahu's room for manoeuvre. If he does not manage to poach members from other parties, he will be very dependent on Yamina."

On the campaign trail, Bennett repeatedly stated that it was time for Netanyahu, 71 years old and in power since 2009, to make way for a new generation. But he also assured supporters that Yamina would not join a coalition led by the centrist Yair Lapid, while at the same time, not excluding the possibility of working with Lapid or Netanyahu in a coalition.

Son of Jewish American immigrants becomes a multimillionaire

A native of the Israeli coastal city of Haifa and a Hebrew University of Jerusalem law graduate, Bennett, the son of Jewish American immigrants, might never have entered politics.

He became a multimillionaire after selling his cybersecurity company Cyota for $145 million (€123m) in 2005 and could have spent the rest of his life "drinking cocktails in the Caribbean", as he likes to say. But his involvement in the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon convinced him to enter politics, the former Israeli soldier has told reporters.

A former major in the Maglan unit, one of the pillars of the Israeli army's special forces, Bennett took the plunge and joined the then opposition party, Likud, where he served as Netanyahu's chief of staff from 2006 to 2008. But his political career really took off in 2012, when he joined and managed to lead the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, which won 12 seats in parliament a year later.

It was a political rise that would propel him into the ranks of the main actors of the Israeli right, but Bennett was always in the shadow of Netanyahu, whom he joined several times in governing coalitions, in exchange for ministerial portfolios, including economy and religious affairs minister in 2013, education minister in 2015 and defence minister from 2019 to 2020.

Firmly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state which, he claims, "will become in the long term another terrorist state like Gaza", Bennett is a vocal supporter of the expansion of West Bank Jewish settlements, where a large portion of his electoral base is located.

Bennett describes himself as more to the right than Netanyahu and appears to relish baiting Palestinians and the left with incendiary remarks such as his shocking, "I've killed a lot of Arabs in my life and there's no problem with that" comment, which made headlines in 2013. Israeli Labour politicians have not minced their words about him either, with former prime minister Ehud Barak calling him a "clown" who leads a "delusional, nationalist" party that has a "whiff of fascism and corruption".

Bennett today leads Yamina alongside Ayelet Shaked, who describes herself as a secular politician in a movement composed of small right-wing parties that advocate economic ultra-liberalism, mixing lower taxes and drastic cuts in public spending with a hard line against Iran and the annexation of nearly two-thirds of the occupied West Bank.

"Naftali Bennett broke into politics in the movement of what is called religious Zionism, but he has broadened his spectrum in the right over the years," explained Dieckhoff. "This is what led him to head Yamina, which is a somewhat mixed movement with a religious Zionist base and at the same time has a somewhat more secular dimension, represented by Ayelet Shaked."

'Condemned to get along with Benjamin Netanyahu'

An Orthodox religious man who grew up in a secular family, Bennett does not deny sharing ideological affinities with Netanyahu even if the two men do not have warm personal relations and never miss the opportunity to rail against each other on the campaign trail.

"Naftali Bennett, who has embraced a rather strict religious practice while being extremely modern in style, is at the head of the party that has spearheaded settlement expansion and he remains 'Netanyahu-compatible'," Frédéric Encel, a Middle East expert at Sciences Po, recently told FRANCE 24, noting that Likud's rightward slide in recent years has "brought the two men's views considerably closer".

Bennett also stands out from other political actors by granting Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt on the three corruption cases the Israeli premier is currently facing, maintaining that justice should take its course while other politicians have called for the Likud leader's withdrawal from the political scene until he is cleared by the courts.

It's a way to spare a rival with whom he could once again govern, bidding his time until he achieves his self-proclaimed goal of becoming prime minister of Israel.

"His profile as a religious leader is an obstacle to his personal ambitions, because the fact is that in Israel, to date, there has never been a prime minister who clearly identified himself as religious," said Dieckhoff.

"Today, Naftali Bennett is not in a position to head a government, his party has a third of Likud's seats after these parliamentary elections. He is therefore condemned to getting along with Benjamin Netanyahu, unless he switches to the other side and provokes the incomprehension of many of his voters."

This article has been translated from the original in French.