Naftali Bennett: the right-wing millionaire who could end the Netanyahu era

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Yamina Party Leader Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem on May 30, 2021. Yonatan Sindel / Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers

This content was published on May 30, 2021 – 18:29

By Mayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Naftali Bennett, Israel’s likely next prime minister, is a self-made tech millionaire who dreams of annexing most of the occupied West Bank.

Bennett said the creation of a Palestinian state would be suicide for Israel, citing security concerns.

But Israel’s religious-right flag-bearer and staunch supporter of Jewish settlements said on Sunday he was joining forces with his political opponents to save the country from political disaster.

The son of American immigrants, Bennett, 49, is a generation younger than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 71, Israel’s longest-serving leader.

A former commando, Bennett named his eldest son after Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, who was killed in an Israeli raid to free hijacked passengers at Uganda’s Entebbe airport in 1976.

Bennett had a long and often difficult relationship with Netanyahu, working between 2006 and 2008 as a senior assistant to the then opposition leader before leaving on bad terms.

Bennett burst into national politics in 2013, reorganizing a pro-settler party and serving as Minister of Defense as well as Education and Economics in various Netanyahu governments.

A former leader of Yesha, the main settler movement in the West Bank, Bennett has made the annexation of parts of the land that Israel captured in a 1967 war a major feature of his political agenda.

But as the head of a so-called “change” government that will include left-wing and centrist parties, while relying on parliamentary support from Arab lawmakers, it would be politically impractical to continue with annexation.

Bennett said on Sunday that the right and left should compromise on such ideological issues.

Born in the immigrant Israeli city of Haifa of San Francisco, Bennett is a modern Orthodox religious Jew. He lives with his wife, Gilat, a dessert cook, and their four children in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana.

Like Netanyahu, Bennett is fluent in English with an American accent and spent part of his childhood in North America, where his parents were on sabbatical.

While working in the high-tech industry, Bennett studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1999, he created a start-up and then moved to New York City, eventually selling his anti-fraud software company, Cyota, to US security firm RSA for $ 145 million in 2005.

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Last year, as Netanyahu’s government sought to advance West Bank annexation and settlement building in the final months of the Trump administration, Bennett, then defense chief, said: “The momentum of construction in the country should not be stopped, even for a second. ”

The annexation plan was ultimately scrapped when Israel formalized relations with the United Arab Emirates. Analysts see little chance that he will be resurrected under Donald Trump’s Democratic successor, President Joe Biden, if ever.

Nonetheless, Palestinians are likely to view Bennett’s rise as a blow to hopes for a negotiated peace and an independent state, the long-standing diplomatic formula Biden favors.

After Israel held its fourth election in two years in March, Bennett, who heads the far-right Yamina party, said a fifth vote would be a national calamity and began talks with the center-left bloc who form the main opposition to Netanyahu.

A proponent of liberalizing the economy, Bennett has expressed support for cutting government bureaucracy and taxes.

Unlike some of his former allies on the religious right, Bennett is relatively liberal on issues such as gay rights and the relationship between religion and state in a country where Orthodox rabbis wield strong influence.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Giles Elgood)

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