Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry
Is Naftali Bennett Israel’s next kingmaker?
The one-time Netanyahu ally is now positioning himself between blocs and as ‘the man with the plan’ for the country’s ills
For the past year, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett has found himself in a new and unwelcome position. The former Israeli minister of defense, education, economy, diaspora affairs and religious services has been, for the first time in his career, in the opposition.
Now, he is angling not just to return to the government, but to lead it. Barring that, Bennett is setting himself up for the all-powerful role in Israeli politics: kingmaker.
“What we need to achieve is three things,” Bennett averred in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “We need to replace Netanyahu, but retain a national right-wing government — that at least the backbone of the next government needs to be right wing; we could have partners that are not right-wing — and a government that will implement a national economic plan.”
Late last year, Bennett, 48, declared that he was running not just for the next Knesset, but for prime minister. But the current polls render that a distinct longshot, with Yamina predicted to receive 10-11 seats in the March 23 election, compared to 28 for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, 18 for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and 13 for Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope.
Despite his heavy criticism of the prime minister, Bennett hasn’t ruled out joining forces with either Netanyahu or the anti-Netanyahu bloc, positioning himself to serve as a kingmaker in a future coalition, as polls show the math for either side exceedingly tight.
Last week, however, Bennett vowed not to sit in a coalition headed by Lapid, potentially narrowing his chances to become the one holding all the cards.
“Lapid will be invited to the government, but the people of Israel don’t want a left-wing government, that’s just reality, it’s the numbers,” Bennett maintained. “The mainstream Zionist parties of Israel feel that it’s time to replace Netanyahu, [and] understand that the government will have to continue representing the overwhelming majority of right-wingers,” he said. “That’s what the people want.”
But he acknowledged that the current polls leave his goal just out of reach.
“I know I do need a bit more mandates, and we’ll be there,” he said. “We can achieve that.”
Tal Schneider, the political correspondent for The Times of Israel, suggested Bennett will still be the likely kingmaker following the election, as candidates scramble to build a 61-seat coalition.
Bennett’s effort to distance himself from Lapid “appears to be for campaign reasons,” Schneider told JI. “[Bennett] is trying to strike a preventative blow to the Likud campaign” against him, reassuring right-wing voters “that there is nothing to fear from voting for him, because he won’t sit with Lapid.”
In reality, “will he or won’t he? It’s hard to know right now,” added Schneider. “It all depends on the numbers.” But for now, she said, Bennett remains the kingmaker, since “he sits at the head of the only party that continues to leap between two weddings.”
Bennett said the country has been divided into two cults: pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu. “And I decided not to belong to any of those cults,” he said. “We need to replace Netanyahu, not because of the just not-Bibi cult, but because he profoundly failed — such a huge failure of leadership and management over the past year or two,” he said, citing four consecutive elections, the COVID crisis and the rising cost of living. “In 30 years of Netanyahu in politics, it’s time to say, ‘Thank you, bye, and now it’s Bennett’s time.’”
Born in Haifa to American parents hailing from San Francisco, Bennett speaks English with near fluency — and spent several years living in Manhattan before returning to Israel and settling in Ra’anana, where he lives with his wife, Gilat, and four children.
A product of Israel’s high-tech world, he achieved rarefied success when he sold the cyber-security startup he founded for $145 million in 2005. A year later, he entered politics as chief of staff to Netanyahu, leaving after two years amid a dispute with Sara Netanyahu. Bennett then served as head of the Yesha Council settlement umbrella organization, before winning the 2012 leadership race of the national-religious Bayit Yehudi Party, and entering the Knesset in 2013.
For the next six years, he served in a variety of ministerial positions as a reliable Netanyahu ally and coalition partner. He is an adamant opponent of a Palestinian state, a supporter of settlement expansion and of the annexation of much of the West Bank, and has long sought to to limit the powers of what he says is Israel’s activist Supreme Court.
Ahead of the April 2019 elections, Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked split from Bayit Yehudi to form the New Right, which narrowly failed to cross the electoral threshold, leaving him both out of the government and out of a job.
In the next election, New Right rejoined with Bayit Yehudi and the National Union, receiving seven seats, followed by six seats in the March 2020 vote. But when Netanyahu formed a shaky national unity coalition with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Bennett was left behind in the opposition.
“It’s better to be in government and effect change,” he chuckled as he reflected on his experiences over the past year. But he sees his time in the political wilderness as instrumental in building support for his current campaign.
“I didn’t just criticize, I actually suggested alternative plans, and I actually made them public,” said Bennett. Over the past year, Bennett has positioned himself as the man with the plan, laying out his approach to revitalizing the economy, cutting bureaucracy, fighting COVID-19 and integrating haredim into the workforce.
Jeremy Saltan, a Chicago-born political consultant who has worked with Bennett for years, and is 16th on Yamina’s electoral list, told JI he is confident in Bennett’s leadership.
“This is my sixth election by Naftali’s side,” said Saltan. “We have known each other for over eight years now. Where he goes — I go… there is just no one else who can successfully lead Israel out of the crisis that was caused by the failure of the current leadership. When all others are responsive to events — it is Bennett who takes the initiative. He is the man with a plan.”
Bennett is campaigning in part on a platform that is more commonly heard on the U.S. campaign trail: job creation and lower taxes. At a time of record-high unemployment and unprecedented economic struggles in Israel, Bennett is pushing his “Singapore Plan” to cut taxes and push deregulation.
“Right now we’ve got a million unemployed Israelis,” he said. “And the only way to create jobs for these million unemployed Israelis… is by rapidly growing businesses and creating new businesses.” Implementing “a drastic tax cut and a drastic regulation cut,” Bennett said, will spur private sector job creation, “and then we won’t be wasting our money on unemployment, we’ll put the money back to the taxpayers and into the businesses.”
Such a plan, he said, will not be popular among those who choose not to work — by design.
“People in Israel who dodge employment are not going to fare well under this plan,” he said. “And that’s deliberate, because I want them to go to work.” When it comes to the haredi sector, Bennett proposes cutting the age at which yeshiva students are exempt from IDF service from 26 to 21. “So effectively, any haredi boy that reaches 21 will be free to choose whether he wants to continue learning in the yeshiva, or go to work. Right now they don’t have that option,” he said, due to the army exemption that keeps them in yeshiva. “That is the most self-harming policy that Israel has today,” he said. “In effect we force haredim not to work until the age of 26… It’s a self-inflicted wound.”
Bennett has also positioned himself as a chief critic of Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The vaccinations are very good, and we need to continue with them,” he told JI. “But you have to recognize that it’s very fragile, because if you see tomorrow variants that bypass the Pfizer vaccination, then the whole national strategy of Israel collapses.”
On top of that, he noted, Israelis under 16 are not currently being vaccinated — and they make up close to one third of the country’s population.
“If anyone thought at the beginning that you can contain COVID, I think it’s very clear that you cannot,” said Bennett, who has laid out a plan that includes mass testing and separate “green” and “red” areas. “We don’t want to be dependent on only the vaccines… we need to do both things together.”
The former defense minister expressed cautious optimism at the election of U.S. President Joe Biden.
“The relationship with the United States goes way deeper than any individual,” Bennett said. “Biden is a well-known friend of Israel who has been here many times… And that’s why I’m fairly optimistic, while recognizing that there are differences that we’ll have to iron out.”
The most pressing concern, he said, is Iran. “If we want to maintain a degree of stability in the Middle East, we have to ensure that Iran does not progress to nuclear weapons. And therefore we cannot return to the original JCPOA [nuclear deal] as is — it needs a bunch of upgrades.”
Bennett was critical last year of Netanyahu’s decision to halt annexation of some West Bank settlements in return for normalization with the United Arab Emirates under the Abraham Accords. If faced with a similar decision as prime minister, he said, he would have refused such a quid pro quo.
“I don’t view the two things as contrarian — it’s not either or,” he claimed. “I think the way to make progress is not by giving up land, because we’ve tried that and… each time we got a new intifada.” Bennett said Arab countries will want to normalize ties with Israel if it shows strength, not weakness. “So the last thing I would do is give up more land and create more rocket centers for Iran in the middle of Israel.”
As the offspring of American parents, Bennett says he feels a personal and unbreakable bond with Diaspora Jewry.
“I view it as something vital for the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” he said. “I view American Jews and Jews in the Diaspora as family,” he added, noting that “we’re losing touch with each other… Now we have to fix it.”
“As prime minister of Israel, this will be very high on my list, to create ongoing dialogue, meeting each other, discussing, and not always agreeing, that’s okay,” he said. “As long as we’re talking, it’s good. I’m much more worried when we’re not even talking.”
Pressed on issues like mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall and recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, Bennett was more circumspect.
“I think the main thing is to create meaningful dialogue,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to work through all issues — whether we solve them or don’t.”
Shortly after Bennett’s interview with JI, Israel’s Supreme Court issued an explosive ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions as valid for the purposes of citizenship. Bennett castigated the justices’ decision, saying the court “is intervening in government decisions and forgetting its role.”
Saltan, who has led Bennett’s Anglo outreach over many election campaigns, told JI that “no one understands Anglos the way he does.” And with the support of enough English-speaking voters, Saltan said, he himself could potentially become the only U.S. native in the next Knesset, “and take care of the issues that matter most to the Anglo community.”
While Bennett identifies as modern Orthodox and has long been associated with the national-religious political movement, he has moved in recent years — starting with the establishment of the New Right — to position himself as a more mainstream figure.
“Yamina now is home… to the entire Am Yisrael — secular, religious, traditional — and also to the national Zionists,” he said. “When I was defense minister or education minister, every child in Israel, Jew or Arab, religious or secular, I viewed them as my child. So that’s how I’m going to go about being prime minister — be prime minister to all Israelis, regardless of the fact that I am a religious Zionist.”
This time, Yamina is running separate from the National Union faction led by the hard-right Bezalel Smotrich, who joined up with Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist far-right candidate associated with the banned Kahanist movement. Last year, Bennett resisted pressure to merge with Ben-Gvir ahead of the April 2020 elections. But speaking to JI, he refused to rule out the possibility of granting Ben-Gvir a ministerial position in the next government.
“From my perspective, only someone who explicitly says they support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state will be allowed in the coalition,” he said. “Ultimately, it will be up to them.”
With just a few weeks until post-election coalition wrangling will begin, Bennett could hold the key to the makeup of the next government. But he is adamant that yet another election cycle is something he would avoid at all costs — potentially leaving a window open for flexibility.
“A fifth election would be devastating,” he said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to prevent a fifth election. It would be crazy.”