Naftali Bennett has come to power in Israel, heading a wide coalition of parties that has overthrown previous prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 13th. Bennett
will lead the coalition for half the prime ministerial term, eventually handing his seat over to the liberal alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, who will see out the remaining two years before the next election.
Who is Naftali Bennett, where did his life begin, and what are the next few years of Israeli politics set out to look like under his guidance?
Born March 25th 1972 in Haifa, Israel to US parents from San Francisco, Naftali Bennett was the youngest of three sons. As for his upbringing his father was a successful real estate broker turned entrepreneur, raising Bennett in a comfortable middle-class home. After following his father to new cities for years at a time due to his job, Naftali Bennett returned to Haifa to attend Yavne Yeshiva High School, going on to become a youth leader with the religious Zionist youth organisation Bnei Akiva.
In 1990 Bennett was drafted into the Israel Defence forces (IDF) and after six years of serving in the Sayeret Matkal and Maglan units, he was discharged, but continued to serve in the reserves and attained the rank of major. His continued service saw him being active during the First Intifada and the Israeli security zone in Lebanon during the 1982-2000 South Lebanon Conflict, participating in a plethora of operations, including the infamous Operation Grapes of Wrath.
Though not all of Bennett’s actions in the IDF were so controversial, it’s also where he met his wife, Gilat Bennett. Gilat, in contrast to Naftali’s Modern Orthodox Judaism, was brought up secular in Moshav Kfar Uria and owned a successful ice cream factory in Kfar Saba called “Gilati” which she sold at the time of their first child’s birth. The couple now have four children and live 20km north of Tel Aviv.
Often overlooked, in 2000 Bennett moved to Manhattan to build a career as a software entrepreneur after co-founding Cyota, an anti-fraud software company. Cyota was sold to RSA Security in 2005 for $145 million, making Bennett a multimillionaire before the age of 34, an impressive feat. Cyota wasn’t the total of his business ambitions though, in 2009 he served as the CEO of Soluto, a tech company providing cloud-based service that enables remote support for personal computers and mobile devices, also selling for over $100 million in 2013.
When it comes to Bennett’s political career, he has always found himself on the right, being party leader of the Jewish Home party from 2012, where he secured 12 out of 120 seats in the 2013 elections and entered into an alliance with Netanyahu’s party to serve as Minister of the Economy and Minister of Religious Services. In December 2018, Bennett defected from The Jewish Home to form the New Right party, stating the reason for the split was that the Jewish Home was purely religious in nature, and he wanted to create a platform to promote cooperation between religious and secular Jews. The party also identifies with economic liberalism, opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state and personal freedoms.
Just a few weeks ago the long-standing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was seemingly confident of his position. After all, he had held it for 12 years, and was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He now sits on the opposition benches, watching Bennett stand where he once did. Moments before the vote began, Netanyahu made a speech, declaring that he would “topple this dangerous government” and return to power if he were to be ousted. Whether or not Netanyahu’s threats have any susbstance to them doesn’t wholly matter right now, what is more pressing is the fragile peace negotiations that so many in Israel and Gaza desperately cling to.
The start of Naftali Bennett’s term of office was marked by a brief return to hostilities between Hamas and the IDF, with Hamas’s militants setting off incendiary balloons into southern Israel and the IDF responding with a new round of airstrikes on Gaza. Hamas claimed that the incendiary balloons were a means to respond to the march on Jerusalem that Bennett allowed to take place. The march was the Jerusalem Day flag march, an annual event that marks Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. The reason behind the march being such a controversial event is that the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel is illegal under international law, making Naftali Bennett’s decision to permit it strikes sharp cords in the minds of Hamas. Bennett’s approval of the march so soon after the ceasefire was agreed may set the tone for his prime ministerial term as controversial, provocative and dangerous.
There is no doubt that it was Hamas who launched the first wave of attacks out of Gaza since the ceasefire which was brokered between Israel and Hamas, a ceasefire that ended the conflict that took the lives of 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 12 Israelis. There is also no doubt that the balloons, uncontrollable in their flight, are indiscriminate in which way they blow, and therefore in which targets they hit. Hamas is a terror organisation, whether it be through the firing of missiles into Israel, or the launching of incendiary balloons, their aim is to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation through means of force. Though it is important to know and understand why that aim exists in the first place.
Nobody can say, in war or in peace, that the destruction of non-combatants farmland with incendiary balloons is a just or acceptable thing, just as much as nobody can say that the firing of rockets out of Gaza into populated areas is a just or acceptable thing. Though even in that statement lies the whole question that forces this conflict to continue; are the farmlands owned by non-combatants? I’m not going to say that Israeli civilian occupants of land and houses that have been stripped from Palestinians in the afflicted zones are combatants, and it would be inflammatory to the conflict to suggest they were. However, it must be understood that the people who now occupy houses and farmlands are seen to be provocative by Hamas, and that Bennett’s continued support for increased settlements acts only to provoke the dispossessed to fight back against further land loss, whether it be right or wrong.
It should also be pointed out that Israel is not entirely blameless. Hamas has been forced into these actions due to the continued illegal theft of their land, their living conditions that can only be described as shocking, and the forced removal from their family homes within Israel – at gunpoint. As long as Israel continue to treat Palestinians as third-class citizens, there will be no end to this vicious conflict. Palestinians are currently living on $2 per day.
If we are to look to Naftali Bennett to relieve both Israelis and Palestinians from the effects of conflict then we would all be sourly disappointed, and perhaps far more nervous about the future. Bennett finds himself to the very far right of the political spectrum, he even led the Yesha council, a council that seeks to protect and promote the aims and reasons behind Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied west bank and Gaza strip. These settlements break international law, and Bennett headed a council that directly supports those settlements. Naftali Bennett’s past political career is provocative to Hamas, and I can only see them acting with more violence over the coming years.
Though maybe my accusations are too harsh, after all, he has entered a coalition with a liberal alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, and for the first time in history there’s an Arab Israeli party in the new coalition government, surely this must be some progress on Bennett’s hard-line views? No, it’s not. In an interview with NPR, Touma-Suleiman, an Arab Israeli member of the Israeli parliament, explained the reason that his party didn’t unite with Bennett.
Touma-Suleiman first outlined why the other Arab Israeli party joined the coalition, to secure a budget of $16 billion to improve infrastructure and to fight crime in Palestinian-majority towns in Israel. He said that there was no doubt that this was something beneficial and to all those who it affects, and that it’s something that the communities have wanted for a long time. However, most importantly, and the reason why I also see no reason why Bennett’s two years as prime minister will be any improvement when it comes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, is that the new government’s broad guidelines expressed that they would be enhancing and creating new buildings in Jerusalem. At first glance, this might seem perfectly acceptable, who doesn’t want improvements to one of the oldest cities in the world? The problem is that their definition of Jerusalem includes East Jerusalem, an area that is recognised by the UN to be under Palestine’s authority. To endorse Naftali Bennett’s actions as prime minister to date is to accept that Israel can legitimately enact authority over East Jerusalem, something that is just too much to ask of any Palestinian or Arab Israeli, let alone Hamas militants.
Though again, Bennett has a history of controversial politics. In 2012, the same year that he became the leader of The Jewish Home party, Bennett published “The Israel Stability Initiative”, a plan which sought to manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan relied on the full annexation of the West Bank, further showing Bennett’s disregard for Palestinian sovereignty. To further clarify Naftali Bennett’s position on the possibility of a Palestinian state, Bennett said that “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get
a state.”. Now that he is prime minister of Israel, a nation that has the second-highest military spending by GDP percentage, he has a huge amount of power behind him to enforce that statement. To me, and so many others, it seems that under Naftali Bennett’s leadership, the only way for lasting peace in the region is for Israeli control over the entire region.
Of course, domestic peace isn’t the only reason that he pursues these ends though, fully controlling the borders will protect Israel from the possibility of an armed conflict between neighbouring Arab states. There can be no disagreement that history has shown the willingness of surrounding nations to go to war with Israel. Bennett also knows as much, even suggesting a tripartition of Palestine, offering Gaza to Egypt, a region that has been advanced on in the past. After all, it is the reason why Israel needs American aid, for simple survival.
Although there is a problem with Bennett’s hard-line approach to the formation of a Palestinian state, one which may see Bennett having to revise a lot of his rhetoric, even if just for appearances. The USA, Israel’s largest and most dependable ally, has often sought to cool tensions in the region when fighting between Hamas and Israel has escalated by publicly calling for a renewal of a two-state agreement, even when Netanyahu was in power. This, with Bennett as the new prime minister, is no longer possible.
It is unclear what will happen due to his unwillingness to consider a two-state solution. Will the USA put more pressure on Israel to commit to a two-state solution, or will they withdraw levels of support for Israel, opening them up to potential security threats? It is hard to say, though I highly doubt it is the second option. After all Israel still remains key to American interests in the Middle East. The first option also sounds just as unlikely though, the Israel lobby is one of the largest in America, with over seven million people being a member of the Christians United for Israel group alone. The prospects of any genuine and committed agreement from either nation is doubtful. Neither the US nor Israel is willing to lose the other, the difference is that if America retracts any amount of support, they will be condemned by their citizens as abandoning their only ally in the Middle East, a sure-fire way to lose the next election, and Bennett knows this.
So, there we have it, Israel will continue to be a bastion of the ‘west’ in the Middle East, and America will continue to defend the nation from neighbouring countries.
Perhaps my forecasts are too bleak on Naftali Bennett, maybe the coalition really can reign his personal political position in and steer him on a more liberal line than before. It could be, as Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist who has worked privately with Bennett, claimed, that most of his rhetoric is for electioneering purposes and that he is far more moderate in reality. Though who can say for sure that any of that is true or will happen? Bennett has a clear history of being on the political far right in Israel, and his initial government guidelines seem to back that up fully, leading to a bleak prospect for lasting peace in the region under his leadership.