Israel is on the verge of its first government in twelve years, led by someone other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Should the new coalition be concluded in the coming week, it would be historic in several ways. It would include a record number of parties, including an Arab list for the first time. A record of eight women would serve as ministers. The party that sent its leader to the Prime Minister deserved the smallest election victory of all before it. But one thing is perhaps even more historic than any of this: Israel will for the first time have a prime minister who is religiously observant.
Naftali Bennett announced last weekend that he had reached an agreement with the party of Yair Lapid – a centrist, secular former news anchor – in which each would become prime ministers for two consecutive years. If the deal goes through – Netanyahu and others are working diligently to sabotage it – the result will be the most unusual government in Israeli history to unite Bennett, a man of the deep right, with partners from the center (Lapid), left (Labor ) and even an Arab-Islamist party with ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bennett is a territorial maximalist who believes in the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank, with an autonomy scheme for the Palestinians there. He believes that a two-state solution, still cherished by the Biden administration and dwindling elements of the Israeli left, would bring a “disaster” to the Jewish state: “I want the world to understand that one Palestinian state does not mean an Israeli state. That's the equation. "
And yet he's not exactly the cartoon's wild settler extremist either: He has native English, an impressive military record, a bank account that was fluffed up after leaving a successful tech startup, and a happy home with four children in a bourgeois neighborhood near Tel Aviv.
More than anything, the potential arrival of Prime Minister Bennett represents mainstreaming the religion in the 73rd year of the State of Israel. His goal is to unite the hills of Samaria with the high-tech center of the country, right and left, religious and secular. He has long believed that religious and right-wing Israelis are the silenced majority whose voices are obstructed by left-wing elites in the media, courts, and academia. But he prefers honey to vinegar; he wants to bring Tekoa to Tel Aviv. If the face of the country becomes a little more religious, a little more right-wing extremist, all the better.
"What is happening is a revolution, "he told Haaretz almost a decade ago, and" for me in particular, it is important to be a bridge to you. From my point of view, one of the greatest challenges is to connect you with religious Zionism. "
Bennett speaks to students from a pre-army training school on January 20, 2013 at the Shapira Center near Ashkelon, Israel.
Bennett does pull-ups while fighting at the Shapira Center on January 20, 2013. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
The central figures in the founding of Israel were secular. Theodor Herzl, the visionary of Zionism, was not only irreligious, but his vision of the Jewish state was hardly shaped by Jewish tradition. David Ben-Gurion, the architect of Israel's independence and its first prime minister (and senior to Netanyahu), listed himself as an atheist in a 1960 census. In a recently published letter from the same year, he describes his reaction to soldiers praying on Yom Kippur in his desert hut. “I did not envy her,” he wrote; Prayer "can feel comfortable – but it is not reality, it is self-deception".
All of Ben-Gurion's successors in the first three decades of the state were secular and socialist. His immediate successors – Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin – only attended religious rituals at their own funerals. Even Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Zionism, was largely untrained in religious tradition. Benjamin Netanyahu, Jabotinsky's ideological heir, works on the Sabbath and rarely goes to synagogues.
Bennett also grew up in a non-religious home, with Myrna and Jim Bennett – liberal reform Jews from San Francisco. But in the spring of 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in an attempt to stifle Israel, and a coalition of Arab states appeared to be rallying for an offensive that would end the country's life at the age of 19. According to Bennett, his parents were stunned that their Jewish -American friends seemed unimpressed and continued their day-to-day routines while the very existence of the Jewish state was at stake. When Israel prevailed within six days and also took the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, they boarded the first civil flight there. In the Upper Galilee they volunteered in the most secular and progressive of all Israeli institutions: the kibbutz.
The Bennetts then settled in Haifa, where Jim worked at the Technion, Israel's venerable technological university, and where Naftali, the youngest of three sons, was born in 1972. However, the integration difficulties proved to be too great and they returned to California next summer.
In October of the same year, however, another war broke out, with a completely different fate for the Israelis. The Yom Kippur War took them completely by surprise; the country suffered heavy losses and its very existence seemed once again in question. Jim flew to his reserve unit on the Golan and stayed there for several months. Myrna and the boys followed him back to Israel, and the move was now final.
The family's religious awakening began slowly, not in Israel, but in Montreal and later in New York, where Naftali's father was sent on behalf of the Technion and then the Jewish Agency. "We enrolled the children in Jewish schools," said Elder Bennett, who died in 2015, two years earlier in a long interview with Haaretz. “We needed a kosher kitchen because other children were visiting us at home. We started with simple things like lighting candles on the Sabbath night. One thing led to another, until we started to visit the synagogue and so on. "
When Bennett was a teenager, he switched from public school to yeshiva as a student. Then he joined the army and reported to Sayeret Matkal, the same elite commando in which Netanyahu had served. Bennett later received an officer commission and commanded a company in Maglan, a mysterious high-tech unit that operated deep behind enemy lines and whose existence was kept secret for decades. In 1996, during an operation in the village of Qana in southern Lebanon, he called for air strikes on a UN site that killed more than 100 civilians. The controversy surrounding that day has been with him ever since.
Friends from his youth remember him as religious but not fanatical. "He always had girlfriends and today he is absolutely not extreme, but normal in his religious attitude," said one.
During his military service, he went headless for several years. In 1995 Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who opposed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Bennett was wearing the skullcap again: "The backlash to the murder of Rabin was a backlash against all religious – owe them the guilt! – what I thought it was very unfair. "
Bennett's relatively lax religiosity is also reflected in his private life. In the army he met Gilat, an accomplished pastry chef from a secular family. In 2000, after a few months in a West Bank settlement, they made a dramatic move to Manhattan's Upper East Side. There he tried his luck in the tech industry, while Gilat was recognized for its crème brulée in some of the finest places in town.
Bennett's own success was not long in coming. Within a few years, the startup he co-founded – the fraud prevention software Cyota – was taken over by the Israeli-American cybersecurity firm RSA for 145 million US dollars, some of which went to Bennett himself.
His transition from this technical godsend to the world of high politics was mediated by the Second Lebanon War of 2006. “I suddenly commanded soldiers in a village in Lebanon and fought against Hezbollah. It's like the strangest thing. And what I've seen in this war are friends of mine who have been hurt or die because of incompetent or immoral leadership, ”he said earlier this year. “It almost drove me crazy – how very good people suffer from bad leaders. That drove me into politics. "
Bennett – now an established reputation as a tech entrepreneur and commander of elite units with right-wing convictions – caught the attention of Netanyahu, the then opposition leader of the now-defunct, centrist Kadima party. He entered as chief of staff and was distinguished by his loyalty to the Likud leader, whose skills he admired and whose late brother – the hero of the celebrated Entebbe raid in 1976 – he idolized. It was in Netanyahu's office that he met Ayelet Shaked, a secular, right-wing former software engineer from Tel Aviv, with whom he was to forge a long-term political partnership. After two years, Bennett and Netanyahu split from the premier's wife, Sara, amid rumors of bad blood.
In 2010 he became chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization for Israeli local councils in the West Bank. He collided with the old guard of the settlement enterprise: They were too confrontational, too divisive. He did not want to defeat the country's liberal-left elite, but rather win their hearts and minds, convince them that the country and the Torah of Israel were as much their inheritance as his.
In 2012 Bennett left the Likud and won the leadership of the Jewish Home, a small national religious party. The party flourished with him at the helm, jumping to fourth place in the elections the following year. With newfound leverage, he entered government and had multiple portfolios at the same time. As Minister of Economics, he called for greater integration among Israel's most marginal citizens: ultra-Orthodox and Arabs. As Minister for Religious and Diaspora Affairs, he held friendly meetings with non-Orthodox delegations from America and made space for mixed-sex and female prayers at the Western Wall.
"He is not ultra-Orthodox, his Jarmulke is small and he is considered a 'religious light', perhaps the lightest," wrote one analyst. "He's not necessarily very religious," added a former high-tech colleague (who hurriedly added, "But he's very right-wing."
In late 2018, Bennett and Shaked left the Jewish Home and formed a new party, the New Right, with the express goal of bringing together secular and religious Jewish-Israelis. The risk failed: in the April 2019 elections, the party did not exceed the minimum threshold for entry into the Knesset. Its political existence was its low point; he passed the reins to Shaked, under whom New Right joined two other right-wing parties under the Yamina ("Rightward") umbrella.
The new coalition did well and Bennett eventually took its lead. In late 2019, Netanyahu named him defense minister fearing he would join Lapid and others to oust him from office. Bennett barely occupied the post for six months, during a relatively uneventful period (by local standards) that offered little opportunity to distinguish himself. But with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, he used the military's full intelligence capabilities and continued the fight against the virus even after he left government. When Netanyahu's public health efforts failed, Bennett built his own shadow corona cabinet with a crew of medical, economics and business experts and even managed to publish a book on fighting the epidemic. Bennett was probably the only Israeli politician to have gained political capital from the size and timing of the corona crisis.
Meanwhile, the growing rift between Bennett and his former mentor became public when he blamed Netanyahu for soaring prices, the botched virus response, tightening internal rifts and delaying promises to annex large swaths of the West Bank. Just last week Bennett beat up the prime minister for mishandling the evolving security situation in Gaza, Jerusalem and between Jews and Arabs across the country. "I do not remember such a period of weakness, dysfunction and national embarrassment," he wrote, slamming Netanyahu's "personality cult".
Bennett's apparent arrival as Prime Minister raises an inevitable question. Given the strange circumstances of its rise, is it just a coincidence in the history of this country, or does it represent an irreversible trend to the right, towards religion and towards a one-state Greater Israel?
Maybe not quite. The emergence of the country's first far-right religious premier does not necessarily mean that it will transform itself into the Jewish Republic of Israel, the reflection of its Iranian archenemy, or into an illiberal pseudo-democracy modeled on Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Hungary. It still has a free press, sprawling Pride parades, and an electoral system that is so democratic that it hinders the actual functioning of democracy. Israel remains an extremely complex country, whose fault lines do not always enclose the curves most familiar to Western observers: left vs. right; Belief vs. science; Jew vs. Arab; Peace vs. war.
But it represents a wider acceptance of the growing presence of religion in the public space in Israel. Lapid's late father led a party whose core objective was to protect secularism and combat religious coercion; in the early 2000s it was still the third largest group in parliament.
Much water has flowed since then to borrow a Hebrew term. There were the dark years of the Second Intifada, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the subsequent flood of rockets and the crashing failure of the two-state vision of the Oslo Agreement. There is no straight or direct line from these developments to Bennett premier, but the feeling across the country is that the future promised by Israel's historically secular center-left leadership has turned out to be a mirage.
"I do not support religious coercion, but I believe that Judaism is our why: Judaism is the reason for our existence and the justification for our existence and the meaning of our existence," he once told the liberal journalist Ari Schavit. “I know this is difficult for your 'tribe'. It is difficult because your tribe built the state in a secular socialist spirit. And when you see society and the state change, you feel exhausted.
“You feel like the home that was your home is no longer yours. I am not indifferent to your need. I am also personally attached to your ethos, ”he added. "All my life I've had one foot here and one foot there."
After all, Bennett doesn't now live in a West Bank settlement like some right-wing leaders (Avigdor Lieberman, another party leader in the new coalition, lives deep in the Judean desert). Instead, he lives in Raanana, an affluent city just outside Tel Aviv with a large English-speaking contingent. His wife, who wears no recognizable religious clothing, now works as an educational advisor, and her cleverly managed Facebook page features posts like “Let's talk about potty training”.
The second inevitable question relates to the Bennett-Biden relationship. For over a decade, Netanyahu has paid lip service (if not always consistently) to the two-state solution that has been US Middle East policy since the administration of George W. Bush. In contrast, Bennett rejected former President Donald Trump's Israeli “Deal of the Century” because it envisaged a Palestinian state, albeit a small, dismembered and demilitarized one.
President Joe Biden has continued Washington’s decade-long tradition of bipartisan support for his Israeli ally. But that support is fraying among the Democrats; The eleven-day war with Hamas last month made it clear that the country's image within the party has changed rapidly and dramatically. Democrats are moving to the left and younger Americans are becoming less devout overall. Bennett understands that the rising generation in the Democratic Party – and among American Jews, who overwhelmingly vote for it – are rapidly departing from their counterparts in Israel.
"I am aware that younger American Jews in particular are much more liberal and left-wing compared to the younger generation in Israel, who tend to be much more conservative and right-wing," he said recently. "I get that. That's what I call family quarrels. How do you resolve it? Well, you don't really resolve it. You live with it and you hug it."
Bennett will likely be the weakest prime minister in Israeli history. The coalition agreement includes a parity clause between his right-wing bloc and Lapid's more centralized bloc, with anyone free to veto new bills. In such an eclectic alliance, these provisions practically ensure that no dramatic legislation is in place, particularly on what is most important to the outside world: Israel's seemingly eternal war with the Palestinians. Bennett may have big plans – annexing the West Bank in the first place – but the circumstances of these strangest governments mean most will have to wait.
"Nobody will have to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams," he said when the agreement was announced.
The Hebrew-speaking commentary has sprayed its usual cynicism on the arrangement, with one analyst venturing that the new government would last six months at best. But the alleged prime minister is far from capable, and he will be reluctant to bend over from a position he has been waiting for all his life. Aside from surprises at the eleventh hour, history will have already been made for Naftali Bennett to become Israel's Prime Minister.