JERUSALEM—The scandal-plagued era of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is finally coming to an end—and the man poised to replace him is known for outrageous controversies of his own.
On Wednesday, Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid announced the formation of a coalition government that will catapult 49-year-old tech millionaire Naftali Bennett into the prime ministership. Lapid, a centrist, made an extraordinary sacrifice to establish what he calls “a government of unity and of healing” after a dozen years of Netanyahu rule. He has agreed to serve as foreign minister in a government which will be led by Bennett, a nationalist right-winger, for its first two years.
The Haifa-born-and-bred Bennett is the son of San Franciscans who emigrated to Israel after the 1967 war. He became a multimillionaire in 2005, following the $145 million sale of Cyota, an anti-fraud software firm he had co-founded. Eight years later, Bennett renounced his American citizenship after his election to Israel’s parliament.
Alongside Netanyahu, Bennett introduced into Israel’s political sphere the crudely anti-Arab language that helped fuel the 11-day quasi-war that gripped the Holy Land last month, killing hundreds of Palestinian and a dozen Israelis in the most lethal bout of violence the country had seen since 2014.
If a single moment defines Naftali Bennett—whose first step into the political arena was to serve as Netanyahu’s chief of staff—it took place in 2018, with the passage of Israel’s notorious Nation-State Law, widely considered the most overtly racist law ever passed by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
In July 2018, then Minister of Education Bennett voted for the legislation, which grants Jews “an exclusive right to national self-determination,” relegating non-Jews to an undefined lesser status, and sparking outrage for enshrining what has been viewed as an apartheid system.
Defending the legislation, Bennett had said that “keeping Israel as the Jewish nation-state does not threaten the future of the Jewish people; it safeguards it. Protecting Jewish traditions, just as they safeguarded our people through two millenniums of exile, is the only way to be sure that Israel can continue to be a strong and vibrant democracy in a very difficult region.”
Yet within a week, a chastened, regretful Bennett admitted it had been a mistake. Conversations with fellow army veterans, he said, convinced him that the government had inadvertently demeaned the Druze, a non-Muslim Arab minority in Israel, renowned for their loyalty to the state.
“We, the Israeli government, have a responsibility to find a way to mend the rift,” he said at the time, without proposing any legislative remedy.
This incident encapsulated the Naftali Bennett Israelis know. For some, he is a fickle politician, an anti-Arab ultra-nationalist, and a pro-annexation extremist unafraid of ruffling feathers abroad. For others, he’s a rational man who doesn’t mind copping to his own mistakes in public.
Further confusing his image, Bennett is a former leader of the West Bank settlement movement who lives in Ra’anana, a prosperous, placid city well within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. He’s also a religiously observant Jew married to a secular woman.
This perplexing combination has made Bennett, who entered the political fray ten years ago, difficult for the Israeli public to grasp. Is he the easy-going suburban husband of a pastry chef, or the growling extremist purported to have boasted, “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that”?
It is unclear whether Bennett, a veteran of the Israeli army’s most elite unit, ever uttered that statement that sealed his international reputation as a man even more extremist than the pro-annexation, anti-Arab Netanyahu. The line was first reported in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, which published the leaked quote without attribution.
Although his comments on killing “lots of Arabs” have never been corroborated, there is no shortage of undisputedly outrageous Bennett quotes. In 2013, Bennett took to Facebook to post that “Terrorists should be killed, not released. All my life I fought towards fulfilling the two parts of this sentence.”
When he was elected to the Knesset that same year, one of his campaign posters read: “There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen: ‘The Sopranos’ are not coming back for another season . . . and there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.”
As Minister of Education, Bennett tried to ban members of Breaking the Silence, a group of military veterans who oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, from speaking to high school students. He also pushed for the removal of the novel Borderlife, by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, which tells the story of a romance between a Jewish woman and a Muslim man, from a list of recommended reading.
Bennett was slammed in 2018 for defending then-president Donald Trump after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, in which 11 Jews were shot and killed in the worst act of antisemitic violence in American history.
The tech millionaire had joined Trump on a visit to the Pittsburgh temple, where congregants refused to meet with the president they considered to have triggered a spike in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. While protesters brandished signs reading “President Hate is not welcome in our state,” Bennett responded with a lengthy defense of Trump that began with: “Using the horrific antisemitic massacre to attack President Trump is unfair and wrong.”
Trump, Bennett tweeted in a lengthy thread, “has our backs. He has delivered on every promise.”
Later, in New York, Bennett seemed to cast doubt on an Anti-Defamation League report which claimed that the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in the first year of Trump’s presidency. “I’m not sure at all there is a surge in antisemitism in America,” he said. “I’m not sure those are the facts.”
Yet it was a very different, somber Naftali Bennett who addressed Israelis on Sunday, when he promised to lead the nation to unity. Netanyahu, he said in his first definitive break from his former mentor, was “leading Israel to his personal Massada,” an allusion to an ancient sect of Jewish zealots who committed mass suicide.
“The madness,” he said, “can be stopped.”
Yohanan Plesner, who heads Jerusalem’s non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, and has known Bennett since they served together as soldiers more than 30 years ago, describes him as “ a pragmatist” who “also has had moments in his career that drove very much to the right.”
“He basically circumvented Netanyahu from the right. From this respect, his public persona is complex,” Plesner told The Daily Beast.
The end of the Netanyahu era, though anticipated, will be an earthquake for Israeli and regional politics, where the prime minister—who has decried the opposition’s efforts to replace him as a left-wing coup—has been a dominant force for almost three decades, even while standing trial on large-scale corruption and bribery charges.
In the past two years, no Israeli party won sufficient parliamentary seats to form a ruling coalition in four successive elections. In March, Netanyahu, whose Likud party resulted in the largest faction, was the first leader offered a chance to establish a coalition but failed to muster a majority. But now, with the backing of such unlikely partners as the Islamic Movement of Israel and the left-wing Meretz party—the political stalemate is coming to an end, and the opposition is coming out on top.
Taking a long view, Plesner said, “I wouldn’t be too bothered about [Bennett’s] past interviews or past pronouncements.”
“There is no doubt Bennett has to grow into the position,” he told The Daily Beast. “We are not in a Biden situation, someone who has been in Washington in every possible position for 50 years and knows exactly how to handle the levers of power.” But Bennett, he explained, is a fast learner who “has a chance to define and position his public persona from the position of the number one leader of the Jewish state.”
Lapid and Bennett have up to a week to present the signed coalition agreements to Israel’s parliament, where a majority of members will vote to install the new government.
“If Bennett becomes Prime Minister someday,” The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote in 2013, “and his ambition is as plump and glaring as a harvest moon—he intends to annex most of the West Bank and let Arab cities like Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin be ‘self-governing’ but ‘under Israeli security.’”
“I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state,” he confidently told Remnick of the Palestinians.
Eight years can make quite a difference.
In his Sunday speech, Bennett promised a government “not of ‘I’, but of ‘we.’”
“No one will be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” he said. “We will focus on what can be done instead of arguing over what is impossible.”