naftali bennett
Naftali Bennett, the new Prime Minister of Israel Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

If you were to view Israeli politics as if it were a restaurant, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing seasonings have dominated the palette for more than a dozen years. Israel and Netanyahu was a flavour combination a bit like Marmite — love it or hate it where a middle ground was never easy to balance. Now, the many chefs in the hot and heady kitchen of the Knesset have come up with a new broth flavouring — Naftali Bennett.

To continue with this culinary analogy, the multimillionaire and former tech entrepreneur had been stirring things up for quite a while and Netanyahu’s options after a dozen years had become a little jaded. Four general elections in two years had taken their toll on voters there, so too had the whiff of scandal that was dominating his last several years.

And for many observers both within Israel and elsewhere, it was time for a change. Netanyahu’s time was up. It’s just that the choice of Bennett and how it came about makes for an unlikely combination — even if the rainbow coalition that chose him to lead Israel for the next two years could only mostly agree that someone else other than Netanyahu had to become Prime Minister.

Last Sunday, a wafer-thin majority of the 120-member Knesset united in a most unlikely and improbable coalition put together by centrist Yair Lapid, voted to end Netanyahu’s 12-year unbroken rule. Lapid himself will take over as Prime Minister in two years’ time — but for now, it is Bennett who takes the helm. Two years is a long time in politics — in Israel, that’s a lifetime, and Netanyahu has been in charge for an eternity.

The 49-year-old former defence minister was once a protégé of Netanyahu. Like many in Israeli politics before him, he was a one-time special forces commando. And like many who had once worked with Netanyahu, their falling out led him to set up the right-wing Yamina party that has called for parts of the occupied West Bank to be fully annexed by Israel.

Yes, the nation’s politics is complicated, but not nearly as much as its long and tangled history that is built on the ancient and modern interplay of the faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Those complexities are millennia and centuries old, compounded by competing imperial forces during the First World War, laid bare in the Naqba and war with its neighbours and the plight of the Palestinian diaspora, and always front and centre on the global stage for decades as leaders of every political stripe sought to resolve this Gordian knot. And always poised to erupt in violence as witnessed in these past weeks.

Bennett will be Israel’s first premier to lead an openly religious lifestyle, and the first to sport the kippa, the small skullcap worn by religious Jewish men.

Few Israelis voted for Bennett’s Yamina party in March’s elections; he picked up just seven seats, compared to Netanyahu’s 30. But Bennett found himself wooed by both Netanyahu and Lapid in their efforts to form a parliamentary majority.

The two men’s partnership is an unlikely one, and Bennett will sit alongside politicians with completely opposing ideologies to his own in government. But as Lapid and Bennett sat next to each other in the government’s first cabinet meeting last weekend, Lapid said it was based on mutual trust and friendship.

The two formed a political brotherhood in 2013, and it has re-emerged to lead the country into a new era of politics. How much of his agenda Bennett can achieve while constrained in an awkwardly assembled coalition remains to be seen. But the Yamina leader — for so long a supporting character in Israel’s high-stakes political spectacle — is placed to become a major player on the world scene.

The son of American-born parents from San Francisco who speaks perfect English, he is ultraliberal on the economy and takes a hard line against Israel’s arch-foe, Iran. He shares this ideology with Netanyahu, having served in several of the Likud leader’s governments. Born in Haifa and a law graduate from Hebrew University, he entered politics after selling his tech start-up for $145 million (Dh532 million) in 2005, and the next year became chief of staff to Netanyahu, who was then in the opposition. Bennett lives with his wife Gilat and their four children in the central city of Raanana.

Bennett made his own name nationally in 2013 as the leader of the pro-settler party Jewish Home. After a merger with another party, he rebranded the party Yamina in 2019.

Bennett has held several posts in Netanyahu’s various governments, including as minister of defence, economy minister and education minister, while continuing to outflank Netanyahu on issues relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. He has also consistently held firm to his opposition to a two-state resolution, citing security and ideological concerns.

Despite holding a handful of critical seats in a very splintered Knesset, Bennett was not asked to join a unity government in May 2020 — a move seen as an expression of Netanyahu’s personal contempt towards him.

In 2020, in opposition and with the coronavirus pandemic raging, Bennett put aside his right-wing rhetoric to focus on the health crisis. He moved to broaden his appeal by releasing plans to contain COVID-19 and aid the economy.

Former supporters and critics have accused Bennett of betraying his nationalist voters by joining a coalition that includes dovish Meretz and support from the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam. Bennett, however, has said he is on a mission to restore Israel’s governance and avoid a fifth election in little more than two years.

“The core promise of these elections was to extract Israel from chaos,” he said. “I chose what’s good for Israel.”

- With inputs from agencies