Meet Shimrit Meir, Naftali Bennett’s key advisor

After a series of diplomatic victories, Meir, the first woman to hold the pivotal role of senior foreign policy advisor and a newcomer to such high-stakes international diplomacy, is now said to be Bennett’s closest and most trusted aide.

Less than a year into office, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has already left an indelible mark on the world stage. Last December, he became the first Israeli prime minister to openly visit the United Arab Emirates; a few months later, he did the same in Bahrain. Then, in early March, he surprised the world by flying to Moscow, on Shabbat, to meet President Vladimir Putin – an attempt, he said, to mediate between Russia and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Bennett turned heads again – a few weeks after the Moscow trip – holding the first-ever trilateral summit with the leaders of Egypt and the Emirates in the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Over the past 11 months, he has also met Jordan’s leader, King Abdullah II, spoken by phone with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and been hosted at the White House by President Joe Biden, emphasizing to the latter clearly — but politely — that Israel will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran.

As Bennett’s presence in the international arena grows, many believe the credit for turning a once-rowdy politician into a world-class statesman and viable alternative to long-serving former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should go to Shimrit Meir, Bennett’s savvy but sometimes contentious senior foreign policy advisor. Shortly after taking office, Bennett designated Meir to be his point person to the White House.

After a series of diplomatic victories, Meir, the first woman to hold this pivotal role and a newcomer to such high-stakes international diplomacy, is now said to be Bennett’s closest and most trusted aide. An effective problem-solver and sharp strategic thinker with a powerful grasp on regional affairs, according to those who know and have worked with the former journalist, Meir has fast become one of the most influential people in Israel today.

Yet, even as the 42-year-old helps Bennett to gain recognition around the world, at home she has faced a stream of criticism and controversies, being labeled a divisive force in Israel’s top office, and drawing no small amount of headlines in her own right.

“A storm in the Prime Minister’s bureau – the controversies and debates that threaten Bennett’s future,” read one recent headline in the Israeli business newspaper Globes. “Bennett’s advisor for everything – who are you, Shimrit Meir?” read another in ICE, an online magazine.

Israel’s top media outlet, Mako, affiliated with Channel 12 News, last month ran a full-length feature about Meir, scrutinizing how she ended up in such a key role without the usual credentials and pointing out that all those who held the position in the past came from the foreign service or the security establishment. 

The article, also attempted to understand why Meir has reportedly clashed with longer-serving Bennett advisors and other members of the government, charging that she has succeeded in alienating his traditional right-wing political allies by dragging a once ultra-nationalist politician to the center-left of Israeli politics.

Last month, when Knesset member Idit Silman, who is from Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, caught the prime minister off guard by suddenly quitting the coalition, some pointed the finger at Meir as one of the triggers with claims the strategist was causing Bennett to ignore the ideological needs of his base. Meir might be adept at advising him on foreign affairs, some said, but with no tangible political experience herself and no regard for Bennett’s right-wing supporters – most of whom hail from the Israeli settlement bloc – she had failed to understand or pay attention to the shaky foundations of his fragile government.

Over the subsequent years, the two are said to have forged a solid relationship, exchanging ideas and thoughts on a wide range of local and regional events from Israel’s relations with its neighbors, including the Palestinians, to tackling the two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Running a government is complicated. Running a government through a coalition that is hanging on by a thread is doubly complicated. Having someone in the fulcrum of power who has never served in a leadership position in the Israeli government is malpractice — and it shows,” a source who has worked closely with Meir told Jewish Insider

“Bennett desperately needs some seasoned hands to help keep the government afloat – and he needs to start by undoing the damage that has been done by standing by and relying on Meir,” continued the source, who, like many others interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous.

The connection between Meir and the prime minister is said to have begun in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s five-week conflict with Hamas in Gaza. She was a journalist at the time, known for her analytical skills and sharp, snappy tweets – she still has more than 80,000 followers on that platform; Bennett was, at the time, a government minister. 

Over the subsequent years, the two are said to have forged a solid relationship, exchanging ideas and thoughts on a wide range of local and regional events from Israel’s relations with its neighbors, including the Palestinians, to tackling the two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic. 

Married to Gideon Gilboa, a high-tech executive, Meir, who holds a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, grew up in the town of Holon. Her military service was spent in the famed 8200 intelligence unit, according to her official bio and following the army, Meir, who is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French, joined Israel army radio, Galei Zahal. She spent seven years there as an Arab affairs correspondent.

In 2010, Meir began working for The Israel Project, a now-defunct Washington-based non-governmental pro-Israel diplomacy organization, running its outreach to the Arabic media. Three years later, she founded Al-Masdar (“The Source”), an online news outlet reporting from Israel directly to the Arab world by-passing traditional censorship that is often imposed on the Jewish State. At its height, Al-Masdar had more than 2 million Facebook followers hailing from “Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond,” according to Meir’s bio. Both the website and the Facebook pages were recently transferred to other organizations.

From 2020 until joining the prime minister, Meir, who now lives in Tel Aviv, focused her energies on strategy, creating Link – the Center for Strategic Communication in the Middle East, a nonprofit that aimed to contribute to a better understanding of Israel in the Arab world.

It was as a strategist, according to Israeli media reports, that following last year’s general election, Meir encouraged Bennett to join forces with current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – and to bring in the Israeli-Arab political party Ra’am – to form an alternative government to Netanyahu.

“Shimrit is very smart, creative and driven,” Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a longtime Jewish leader who founded and headed The Israel Project while Meir worked there, told JI. Mizrahi added “driven, focused and unflappable” to Meir’s formidable skill set.

“She did tremendous work at The Israel Project to build bridges between Israel and the Arabic-speaking world,” continued Mizrahi. “Because of her, and the team she recruited and led, millions of Arabs got to see Israel from an accurate perspective. Her work was a vital part of building openings in hearts and minds that made the Abraham Accords possible.”

“I will add that she built trust with even hostile reporters by telling the truth,” said Mizrahi, adding, “the Shimrit Meir I know has no problem telling truth to power. Even when the news is bad. That is enormously valuable on a strategic team.”

However, close observers told JI that Bennett’s reliance on Meir beyond just foreign affairs has left many of his veteran advisors and top aides in other government ministries feeling distanced and frustrated, causing tension at the top levels of the coalition, including with Lapid’s team. 

“Shimrit is talented, smart and hard-working – she was a great journalist – but she is also the first woman appointed to this role,” theorized the analyst. “I’m not sure that a man would have faced such terrible rumors – guys get to be professional and assertive, but women have to be nice as well; they are judged differently.”

“The only person on her side is in fact the only person who really matters at the prime minister’s office and that is the prime minister,” said another source, adding that she’s so busy engaging in issues unrelated to her experience that she often ignores Diaspora Jewish leaders and visiting delegations. 

Another analyst explained that while “[Meir] understands the region, knows how to build relations with the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Gulf States, which is very important, it’s not enough when you are advising a prime minister of Israel and especially a prime minister with severe [domestic] political constraints.” 

The analyst added, however, that part of the backlash against Meir, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also stemmed from the fact that she is a woman in a senior and powerful role.

“Shimrit is talented, smart and hard-working – she was a great journalist – but she is also the first woman appointed to this role,” theorized the analyst. “I’m not sure that a man would have faced such terrible rumors – guys get to be professional and assertive, but women have to be nice as well; they are judged differently.”

“Shimrit is not a schmoozer, she’s a doer, and that is inexcusable when it comes to women,” she added.

While it’s difficult to determine if the contention surrounding her stem from chauvinism or jealousy at her achievements, what is clear is that Meir has come through for Bennett in the international sphere, allowing him to build strong ties with a Democratic administration in the U.S. and raising his standing on the world stage.

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