Who is Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Would-Be Prime Minister?

A former chief of staff to the prime minister he may replace, he is considered by some to be more right-wing than his old boss.,

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Is Naftali Bennett, poised to become prime minister, an ideologue or a pragmatist?

  • June 2, 2021, 12:04 p.m. ET
ImagePrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listening last year to Naftali Bennett, who was then serving as defense minister.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listening last year to Naftali Bennett, who was then serving as defense minister. Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

Naftali Bennett, who is poised to become Israel’s next prime minister, is a former high-tech entrepreneur best known for insisting that there must never be a full-fledged Palestinian state and that Israel should annex much of the occupied West Bank.

The independently wealthy son of immigrants from the United States, Mr. Bennett, 49, first entered the Israeli Parliament eight years ago and is relatively unknown and inexperienced on the international stage. That has left much of the world — and many Israelis — wondering what kind of leader he might be.

A former chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Bennett is often described as more right-wing than his old boss. Shifting between seemingly contradictory alliances, Mr. Bennett has been called an extremist and an opportunist. Allies say he is merely a pragmatist, less ideological than he appears, and lacking Mr. Netanyahu’s penchant for demonizing opponents.

In a measure of Mr. Bennett’s talents, he has now pulled off a feat that is extraordinary even by the perplexing standards of Israeli politics. He has all but maneuvered himself into the top office even though his party, Yamina, won just seven of the 120 seats in the Parliament.

Mr. Bennett leveraged his modest but pivotal electoral weight after the inconclusive March election, Israel’s fourth in two years. He entered coalition talks as a kingmaker, and appears ready to emerge as the one wearing the crown.

Mr. Bennett has long championed West Bank settlers and once led the council representing them, though he is not a settler, himself. He is religiously observant — he would be the first prime minister to wear a kipa — but he will head a governing coalition that is largely secular.

He would lead a precarious coalition that spans Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and includes a small Arab, Islamist party — much of which opposes his ideas on settlement and annexation. That coalition proposes to paper over its differences on Israeli-Palestinian relations by focusing on domestic matters.

Mr. Bennett has explained his motives for teaming up with such ideological opposites as an act of last resort to end the political impasse that has paralyzed Israel.

“The political crisis in Israel is unprecedented on a global level,” he said in a televised speech on Sunday. “We could end up with fifth, sixth, even 10th elections, dismantling the walls of the country, brick by brick, until our house falls in on us. Or we can stop the madness and take responsibility.”

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