Naftali Bennett: The far-right nationalist poised to be Israel's prime minister
For the first time in 12 years, Israel is expected to be ruled by someone other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Naftali Bennett, the man set to end Netanyahu’s reign, is an ultra-nationalist, multi-millionaire ex-tech executive with a strong anti-Palestinian agenda.
The leader of the far-right electoral alliance, Yamina, Bennett entered the political realm in 2005 serving as then opposition leader Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
In 2012, Bennett was elected as chairman of the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi (or “Jewish Home”), and from there, his political career soared.
Bennett opposes a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state, instead favouring the 'Greater Israel' model, a right-wing, nationalist movement seeking to settle all of historic Palestine
He has since served as the Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Minister of Education, and had a brief stint as Defence Minister before Benny Gantz replaced him in 2020. In 2018, he left the Jewish Home Party to form the New Right Party.
A man wearing many hats, but none seem to fit
An unusual leader by Israeli standards, Bennett dons many labels yet appears a walking contradiction of each.
He heads the religious right but married a secular woman. He ran the Yesha Council, the political organisation representing Israeli settlers, but lives far from the occupied West Bank in a ritzy Tel Aviv neighbourhood within Israel’s Green Line.
And while Bennett shares a similar hard-line nationalist ideology with other Israeli politicians, he stands out in the blunt, unfiltered nature of his statements.
During a government debate in 2013 on releasing Palestinian prisoners, Bennett said, “If we capture terrorists, we need to just kill them,” adding, “I've already killed a lot of Arabs in my life - and there is no problem with that.”
He further reiterated this violent sentiment in 2018, saying that as defence minister he would order a shoot-to-kill policy for Palestinians attempting to cross the Gazan border into Israel.
Asked about whether he would instruct the army to shoot children breaching the barrier, he said, “They are not children - they are terrorists. We are fooling ourselves. I see the photos.”
He’s compared the conflict with Palestine to “shrapnel in the buttocks” and told the Palestinian-majority Joint List parliamentary member Ahmad Tibi, “when you were still swinging from trees, we had a Jewish state here.”
Netanyahu and Bennett subscribe to the same settler-colonialist political framework, but while one leader tempers his remarks to fit with a global audience, the other has made incendiary rhetoric a core part of his brand.
Bennett has repeatedly declared his support for the complete Israeli annexation of the West Bank
“This isn’t the ‘Arabs are voting in droves’ comment Netanyahu made, this is they're ‘swinging from trees’ and ‘I've killed a lot of Arabs.’ These are violent, racist statements,” said Palestinian lawyer and analyst Diana Buttu.
“Bennett’s ideology is an ideology of extreme racism, whereas Netanyahu learned a little bit how to polish up that same ideology.”
An 'openly racist' prime minister
Bennett has repeatedly declared his support for the complete Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
He advocates annexing Area C, which comprises 60 per cent of the West Bank and is currently under full Israeli military control.
He opposes a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state, instead favouring the “Greater Israel” model, a right-wing, nationalist movement seeking to settle all of historic Palestine.
"The most important thing in the Land of Israel is to build, build, build [settlements],” Bennett said in 2013.
“It's important that there will be an Israeli presence everywhere. Our principal problem is still Israel's leaders' unwillingness to say in a simple manner that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel."
As part of a diverse coalition made up of centrists, leftists, and Islamists, Bennett, however, may struggle to live up to his ultra-conservative image.
Pictures of the 49-year-old wearing a keffiyeh fashioned in the same style as late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with the caption “liar”, have circulated on social media, suggesting Bennett will cave to centre-left politics.
Hundreds of right-wing Israeli activists have also protested in front of his home and those of other Yamina MPs decrying the proposed coalition government.
In a speech on Sunday, Bennett sought to reassure the right-wing, while also taking a shot at Netanyahu.
“Let the country move forward. People are allowed to vote for a government even if you do not lead it — a government that, by the way, is 10 degrees to the right of the current one,” he said.
This isn't the 'Arabs are voting in droves' comment Netanyahu made, this is they're 'swinging from trees' and 'I've killed a lot of Arabs.' These are violent, racist statements
Buttu believes that this criticism could translate into Bennett making a conservative agenda the cornerstone of his premiership.
“He's going to want to prove his right-wing credentials, particularly given that there's a lot of pressure on him right now to show whether he's a left-winger or right-winger,” Buttu said.
While the international community may breathe a sigh of relief with Netanyahu out of power, Buttu likens the beginning of Bennett’s term to “breathing in carbon monoxide.”
“If the red carpet gets rolled out for him, then it legitimates him inside Israel,” Buttu said. “And legitimating him inside Israel once again means that it's okay to have a prime minister who is so openly racist, so openly ultra-nationalist and who believes in land theft.”
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.
Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum