Explained: Who is Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister?

Benjamin Netanyahu lost his 12-year-old grip on power as the Knesset approved Naftali Bennett as Israel’s new Prime Minister late on Sunday evening India time.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, is on trial for fraud, and he fell short of obtaining majority support after the general election in March this year — the country’s fourth inconclusive vote in two years.

The new Prime Minister is a former aide to Netanyahu and is considered to the right of the outgoing leader. The centrist Yair Lapid, 57, will replace Bennett as PM after two years, if their fragile government survives till then.

Bennett and Lapid lead an extraordinary eight-party coalition that has parties both on the left and right, secular as well as religious, and who are united essentially only by their desire to pull Netanyahu from power.

Who is Naftali Bennett?

Bennett, a 49-year-old politician with American parents is a former tech entrepreneur who made millions before switching to, and getting deeply involved in, rightwing politics and a religious-nationalist political position.

Some observers and newspapers in Israel have labeled him “ultra-nationalist” for his views. Bennett, leader of the Yamina party, told The Times of Israel this February: “I’m more rightwing than Bibi (Netanyahu), but I don’t use hate or polarisation as a tool to promote myself politically.”

Bennett has recently called for the annexation of occupied West Bank. Observers of his political career have noted that this has, in fact, been his stance broadly ever since he burst into Israel’s political scene in 2013.

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Bennett worked for Netanyahu as a senior aide between 2006 and 2008. He left Netanyahu’s Likud party, however, after his relationship with the former Prime Minister soured.

After he entered politics, Bennett aligned himself with the rightwing national religious Jewish Home party, and entered Parliament as its representative in 2013.

Where does Bennett stand in terms of political ideology?

Bennett is known for being a strong advocate of the Jewish nation state, and for insisting on Jewish historical and religious claims to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, territory near the Israel-Syria border that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war.

Once the head of the Yesha Council, a political group that represents Jewish settlers, Bennett has been a long-standing advocate of rights of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. He has, however, never advocated Israeli claims on Gaza.

That said, Bennett has taken a hard line towards Palestinian militants, and has endorsed the death penalty for them. In May this year, Bennett accused Hamas of the “murder” of civilians in Gaza, who were killed in Israeli air-strikes in response to Hamas rocket fire from Gaza.

Bennett, The Times of Israel has said, “is not in the business of boycotting political rivals, but he is a man of ‘the national camp’ — a firm and proud right-winger who will oppose Palestinian statehood forever, under any and every circumstance; who wants to extend Israeli sovereignty to some 60 per cent of the West Bank; who thinks Israel has already relinquished too much of its Biblical land”.

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Bennett’s rise to Prime Minister likely means a setback for Palestinians who hope for negotiations for peace and, at some point, an independent state.

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