Who is Naftali Bennett – Israel’s potential prime minister ?

Al-Jazeera  /  May 31, 2021

Former defence chief and Netanyahu ally officially parts ways with Israeli PM, announces bid to become prime minister.

Naftali Bennett has moved a step closer to replacing Israel’s veteran prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bennett is a multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur who made a name in politics with right-wing, religious-nationalist rhetoric.

The 49-year-old, who has made pitches to far-right voters throughout his career, leads the Yamina party, which has called for Israel to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

A firebrand politician who has not shied away from controversy, Bennett is ultra-liberal on the economy and takes an aggressive line against Iran.

He shares this ideology with Netanyahu and has served in several of the Likud leader’s governments. In recent years, however, the two have become increasingly opposed.

On Sunday, Bennett said he would join a governing coalition that could end Netanyahu’s 12-year rule.

He agreed to join centrist Yair Lapid in a coalition to remove the prime minister. Lapid has offered to share power, letting Bennett serve the first term rotating as prime minister.

A former special forces commando, Bennett is the son of US-born parents and lives with his wife Galit and four children in the central city of Raanana.

He entered politics after selling his tech start-up for $145m in 2005, and the next year became chief of staff to Netanyahu, who was then in opposition.

After leaving Netanyahu’s office, Bennett in 2010 became head of the Yesha Council, which lobbies for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

He then took politics by storm in 2012 when he took charge of the far-right Jewish Home party, which was facing annihilation.

He increased its parliamentary presence fourfold, while making headlines with a series of incendiary comments about the Palestinians.

In 2013, he said Palestinian “terrorists should be killed, not released”.

He has courted controversy on several occasions, once stating that the West Bank is not under occupation because “there was never a Palestinian state here”, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be resolved but must be endured.

Beyond holding the defence portfolio, Bennett has served as Netanyahu’s economy minister and education minister.

He re-branded Jewish Home as Yamina (Rightward) in 2018, and was part of Netanyahu’s coalition which collapsed the same year.

But he was not asked to join a Netanyahu-led unity government in May last year – a move seen as an expression of the prime minister’s personal contempt towards him, despite their shared ideology.

In opposition and with the coronavirus pandemic raging in 2020, Bennett dampened his right-wing rhetoric to focus on the health crisis, moving to broaden his appeal by releasing plans to contain the virus and aid the economy.