Middle East

Naftali Bennett, the man who could replace Israel's longest-serving PM Netanyahu

JERUSALEM (BLOOMBERG) – Israel’s political opposition has pulled together a government designed to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s cumulative 15 years in power.

If the coalition is ratified by parliament within the coming week, he will be replaced as prime minister by Mr Naftali Bennett, a 49-year-old technology millionaire and former cabinet minister whose politics are further to the right than his own.

To get where he has gotten, though, Mr Bennett has agreed to ally in government with partners whose opposing views could moderate policy.

What is Mr Bennett best known for?

Mr Bennett is the head of the Yamina party, a predominantly religious faction that opposes Palestinian statehood and wants to annex large sections of the West Bank, territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

In fact, Mr Netanyahu began advancing annexation only after Mr Bennett made the idea a vote-getter. Mr Bennett is also a hardliner on Iran. The new government, however, is made up of a jumble of parties with sometimes conflicting ideologies that banded together expressly to remove Netanyahu.

To that end, it is expected to try to sideline contentious issues such as Palestinian statehood and focus instead on things like getting the economy back on track after the coronavirus pandemic.

How did Mr Bennett, the head of a small party, get propelled into the prime minister’s seat?

Israel has had four inconclusive elections since April 2019. In the last ballot in March, Yamina won only seven seats in the 120-member parliament, but because the legislature is fragmented into 13 parties, that was enough to make Mr Bennett a kingmaker.

He will serve as prime minister for the first two years as a condition for joining the new coalition put together by opposition leader Yair Lapid. Mr Lapid was assigned that task after Netanyahu failed, and is to take over as prime minister in 2023 under his power-sharing deal with Mr Bennett.

What’s Mr Bennett’s history?

He is a native Israeli born to American immigrants. Mr Bennett served in an elite military commando unit and as a tech entrepreneur, co-founded payment security company Cyota, which was sold for US$145 million (S$192 million) to RSA Security.

He served as chief of staff for then-opposition leader Netanyahu from 2006 to 2008, and after breaking with him, headed the Jewish settlers’ council. Mr Bennett entered politics in 2012 as the head of a religious nationalist party and has served in cabinet in various capacities, including religious affairs minister, education minister and briefly, as defence minister.

In Israeli terms, he is a moderate on some religious issues such as advocating pluralistic worship and respecting gay rights.

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