Israel’s Bennett: Right-winger, likely kingmaker and possible PM?

2021-03-16 04:00:52

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Naftali Bennett is a multi-millionaire former high-tech entrepreneur who made a name in politics with hardline religious-nationalist rhetoric and who could be the kingmaker following Israel’s election next week.
Bennett leads the Yamina party, which has backed Israel’s proposed annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, while Bennett himself has made pitches to hard-right voters throughout his career.
As the former defence minister eyes a return to government, he has highlighted his management experience, arguing he is the man to heal Israel’s pandemic-battered economy.
Bennett had been part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s coalition that collapsed in 2018.
But he was not asked to join the Netanyahu-led unity government formed in May, a move seen as an expression of the premier’s personal contempt towards him, despite their shared ideology.
Bennett entered politics after selling his tech start-up for $145 million in 2005 and the next year became chief of staff to Netanyahu, who was then in opposition.
He was widely regarded as a Netanyahu protege, but now he could play a starring role in ending the prime minister’s record 12-year tenure.
Polls point to another inconclusive result in the March 23 vote, Israel’s fourth in two years.
While the precise vote share is impossible to predict, multiple scenarios suggest Yamina’s seats will be decisive in determining whether Netanyahu, or the anti-Netanyahu bloc, can form a majority.
Bennett has said he could sit in an anti-Netanyahu government, but he has not ruled out joining the premier, especially if that helps avoid a dreaded fifth election.
A former special forces commando who will be 49 two days after the election, Bennett is the son of US-born parents and lives with his wife Galit and four children in the central city of Raanana.
After leaving Netanyahu’s office he became in 2010 the head of the Yesha Council, which lobbies for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
He then took politics by storm in 2012 when he took charge of the hard-right Jewish Home party, which was facing extinction from parliament.
He increased its parliamentary presence fourfold, while making a series of incendiary comments about the Palestinian conflict.
In 2013, he said Palestinian “terrorists should be killed, not released.”
He also argued 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 like a piece of “shrapnel in the buttocks”.
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.
In opposition and with the coronavirus pandemic raging last year, Bennett dampened his right-wing rhetoric to focus on the health crisis, releasing plans to contain the virus and aid the economy.
He has sought to broaden his appeal, and in Israel’s chaotic and divided political scene, he has an outside shot at being prime minister in an anti-Netanyahu coalition.
“In the next years we need to put aside politics and issues like annexation or a Palestinian state, and focus on gaining control over the coronavirus pandemic, healing the economy and mending internal rifts,” he told army radio in November.

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