Naftali Bennett (Hebrew: נַפְתָּלִי בֶּנֶט, IPA: [naftaˈli ˈbenet]; born 25 March 1972) is an Israeli politician serving as the 13th and current prime minister of Israel since 13 June 2021. He served as Minister of Diaspora Affairs from 2013 to 2019, as Minister of Education from 2015 to 2019, and as Minister of Defense from 2019 to 2020. He has led the New Right party since 2018, having previously led The Jewish Home party between 2012 and 2018.
Born and raised in Haifa, the son of immigrants from the United States, Bennett served in the Sayeret Matkal and Maglan special forces units of the Israel Defense Forces, commanding many combat operations, and subsequently became a software entrepreneur. In 1999, he co-founded and co-owned the US company Cyota. The company was sold in 2005 for $145 million. He has also served as CEO of Soluto, an Israeli cloud computing service, sold in 2013 for a reported $100–130 million.
Bennett entered politics in 2006, serving as Chief of Staff for Benjamin Netanyahu until 2008. In 2011, together with Ayelet Shaked, he co-founded the My Israel extra-parliamentary movement. In 2012, Bennett was elected as the party leader of The Jewish Home. In the 2013 Knesset election, the first contested by The Jewish Home under Bennett's leadership, the party won 12 seats out of 120. He served under Prime Minister Netanyahu as Minister of Economy and Religious Services from 2013 to 2015, before being appointed as Minister of Education in 2015. In December 2018, Bennett defected from The Jewish Home to form the New Right, a member of the Yamina alliance. After he lost his Knesset seat in the April 2019 Knesset election, he was dismissed by Netanyahu as Education Minister in June 2019. He regained his seat in the September 2019 Knesset election and was appointed Minister of Defense, before leaving the position the following year. In 2020, Bennett succeeded Shaked to become the leader of the Yamina alliance. On 2 June 2021, Bennett agreed to a rotation government with Yair Lapid, whereby Bennett would serve as Israel's Prime Minister until 2023, after which Lapid would assume the role until 2025. Bennett was sworn in on 13 June 2021.
Naftali Bennett was born in Haifa, Israel, on 25 March 1972. He is the youngest of three sons born to Jim and Myrna (née Lefko) Bennett, American-Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel from San Francisco in July 1967. Both his parents were from Ashkenazi Jewish backgrounds. His father's ancestors were from Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Bennett's paternal great-great-great-grandfather Julius Salomonson was from Łobżenica, Poland, and arrived in San Francisco in 1851 during the California Gold Rush. His mother's ancestors lived in Russia and Poland, and her parents immigrated to the United States prior to World War II. They later moved to Israel, joining their daughter's family there, and settled on Vitkin Street in Haifa, close to where Bennett and his brothers grew up. Some of his mother's family members who remained in Poland were murdered in the Holocaust.
Bennett's parents were raised in non-Orthodox Jewish homes and were progressive activists during the 1960s. His father was arrested while taking part in an anti-racism sit-in protest in 1964. They later began to observe Modern Orthodox Judaism and embraced right-wing Israeli politics. After moving to Israel in 1967, they volunteered for a few months at kibbutz Dafna, where they studied the Hebrew language, then settled in the Ahuza neighborhood of Haifa. Jim Bennett found a job in the Technion, working for its fundraising team, and became a successful real estate broker turned real estate entrepreneur. Myrna Bennett was the deputy director general of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel's northern region.
In the summer of 1973, when Bennett was one year old, the family returned to San Francisco at the urging of his mother. With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Jim Bennett returned to Israel to fight in the Israel Defense Forces, serving in an artillery unit on the Golan Heights front. Following the war, the rest of the family returned to Israel at his request as he was held in reserve duty for months after the war. Bennett's parents ultimately decided to stay permanently in Israel.
When Bennett was four years old, the family moved to Montreal for two years as part of his father's job. Upon returning to Haifa, Bennett began attending Carmel elementary school. When he was in second grade, the family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey for two years, again as part of his father's job. While living in New Jersey, Bennett attended Yavneh Academy. The family returned to Haifa when Bennett was ten.
Bennett has two brothers; they are Asher, a businessman based in the United Kingdom, and Daniel, an accountant for Zim Integrated Shipping Services. Bennett attended Yavne Yeshiva High School in Haifa, and became a youth leader (madrich) with the religious Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva.
Bennett was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces in 1990. He served in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and after his regular service was selected for officer training. He was given a choice of remaining in Sayeret Matkal but as a regular operator rather than a commander or transferring to the Maglan commando unit to receive a command position, and chose to transfer to Maglan. He became a company commander in the Maglan unit. Bennett was discharged from active service after six years but continued to serve in the reserves and attained the rank of major. During the time that Bennett was living in the United States and building his career as a software entrepreneur, he repeatedly traveled to Israel to do reserve duty. Bennett served during the First Intifada and in the Israeli security zone in Lebanon during the 1982–2000 South Lebanon conflict. He commanded many operations. Among other missions, he served as an officer in Operation Grapes of Wrath. After his regular IDF service, Bennett received a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During the Second Intifada, he participated in Operation Defensive Shield. He was called up as a reservist in the Maglan special forces unit during the 2006 Lebanon War and participated in a search and destroy mission behind enemy lines, operating against Hezbollah rocket launchers.
One of Bennett's actions as a commando officer became highly controversial. During Operation Grapes of Wrath, while leading a force of 67 Maglan soldiers operating in southern Lebanon, Bennett radioed for support after his unit came under mortar fire. The IDF launched an artillery barrage to cover his force, and the shelling hit a United Nations compound in which civilians were taking refuge, an incident that became known as the Qana massacre. A total of 106 Lebanese civilians were killed. The incident resulted in a wave of international condemnation, and the subsequent diplomatic pressure caused Israel to end Operation Grapes of Wrath sooner than planned. Journalist Yigal Sarna, writing in Israeli national tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, argued that Bennett displayed "poor judgement" during the operation. Sarna wrote that "Bennett led a force of 67 combat troops into Lebanon. At a certain point, he decided to ignore orders and change operational plans, without coordinating these moves with his superiors, who in his mind were cowardly, and not steadfast enough. Near the village of Kfar Kana, Bennett's troops were caught in an ambush."
Citing a "senior army figure", journalist Raviv Drucker said that Bennett's radio call for support after his unit came under fire was "hysterical" and contributed to the loss of life which occurred. Bennett responded: "I have now been subjected to an attack claiming that I am 'responsible for the massacre in Kfar Kana.' Heroism will not be investigated. Keep looking in the archives. My military file is available for viewing, and it's waiting for you." Former members of Bennett's unit wrote a letter defending him, saying: "Naftali [...] led many successful operations that led to the elimination of Hezbollah terrorists deep in enemy territory." Other officers involved in the operation, including one who was Bennett's deputy during the Qana incident, also denied that he had changed plans without consulting his superiors.
Bennett moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2000 to build a career as a software entrepreneur. In 1999, he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company, and served as its CEO. The company was sold in 2005 to RSA Security for $145 million, making Bennett a multimillionaire. A stipulation of the deal allowed the Israeli arm of Cyota to remain intact. As a result, 400 Israelis are employed at the company's Israeli offices in Beersheba and Herzliya. Bennett has also served as the CEO of Soluto, a technology company providing cloud-based service that enables remote support for personal computers and mobile devices in 2009, at a time when he and partner Lior Golan were engaged in raising funds for myriad Israeli technology startup companies. Soluto had hitherto raised $20 million from investors, including venture capital funds Giza Venture Capital, Proxima Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Index Ventures, Michael Arrington's CrunchFund, and Eric Schmidt's Innovation Endeavors and Initial Capital. The sale of Soluto for a reported $100–130 million to the American company Asurion was finalized in October 2013.
In June 2021, Forbes Israel reported that Bennett is expected to make $5 million from his investment in the American fintech company Payoneer. Bennett invested several hundred thousand dollars in the company before entering politics. Payoneer is set to list on the Nasdaq stock exchange with a $3.3 billion valuation after reaching a SPAC merger with FTAC Olympus Acquisition Corp in February 2021.
Bennett with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper
in February 2020
In April 2011, together with Ayelet Shaked, he co-founded My Israel, which claims to have 94,000 Israeli members. In April 2012, he founded a movement named Yisraelim ("Israelis"). The movement's main goals include increasing Zionism among centre-right supporters, increasing dialogue between the religious and secular communities, and promoting "The Israel Stability Initiative."
Following his election to the Knesset, and before he could take his seat, Bennett had to renounce his U.S. citizenship, which he held as the son of American parents. He was appointed Minister of Economy and Minister of Religious Services in March 2013. In April 2013, he was also appointed Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs.
After being reelected in the 2015 Knesset election, Bennett was appointed Minister of Education and retained the Diaspora Affairs portfolio in the new government. In May 2015, Netanyahu split the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, initially taking back the Jerusalem Affairs portfolio for himself. He later appointed Ze'ev Elkin to the role of Jerusalem Affairs Minister. As Minister of Education, Bennett issued an official order prohibiting school principals from inviting members of Breaking the Silence and other organizations that denounce Israel's military conduct in the West Bank.
In October 2015, Bennett resigned from the Knesset in order to allow Shuli Mualem to take his seat. His resignation took place under the Norwegian Law, which allowed ministers to resign their seats when in the cabinet but return to the Knesset if they leave the government. He returned to the Knesset on 6 December after Avi Wortzman opted to vacate his seat, having temporarily had to resign as a minister in order to do so.
Following Avigdor Lieberman's resignation as Defense Minister in November 2018, Bennett announced that he was seeking the position for himself. On 16 November 2018, a Likud party spokesman announced that Netanyahu had rejected Bennett's request and that Netanyahu himself would take the position instead. It was then announced that Bennett's Jewish Home party would no longer be affiliated with Netanyahu's government. On 19 November, Bennett reneged on his pledge to withdraw from Netanyahu's coalition.
In December 2018, Bennett was among the Jewish Home MKs to leave the party and form the breakaway New Right party. In the April 2019 Knesset election, New Right narrowly failed to cross the electoral threshold; as a result, Bennett did not gain a seat in the 21st Knesset. In June 2019, he left the government after Netanyahu dismissed Bennett from his positions as Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister.
After the Knesset dissolved and a second election in 2019 was called for September, the New Right formed an electoral alliance with the Jewish Home and National Union-Tkuma, named the United Right which was later renamed Yamina, and was led by Ayelet Shaked. The list won seven seats in the election, and Bennett regained his Knesset seat. In November 2019, Bennett rejoined Netanyahu's government as Minister of Defense. After briefly dissolving, the Yamina alliance was reunified in January 2020 ahead of the 2020 Knesset election, with Bennett succeeding Ayelet Shaked as the new leader of the alliance. Yamina won six seats in that election.
In May 2020, with negotiations to form a new government between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White alliance, Yamina announced that it would go into the opposition, ending Bennett's tenure as Defense Minister. The day before, Rafi Peretz, the leader of The Jewish Home, had split from the alliance, and would be named as the Minister of Jerusalem in the thirty-fifth government of Israel. On 17 May, Bennett met with Gantz, who also succeeded him as Defense Minister, and declared that Yamina was now a "head held high" member of the opposition. Tkuma, which rebranded as the Religious Zionist Party on 7 January 2021, split from Yamina on 20 January. In spite of this, Yamina won seven seats in the 2021 Knesset election in March.
Prime Minister of Israel
On 9 May 2021, it was reported that Bennett and Leader of the Opposition and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had made major headway in coalition talks for forming a new Israeli government which would oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On 30 May, Bennett announced that he would serve as prime minister in a rotation government until August 2023, at which point Lapid would take over as prime minister until 2025. Bennett was sworn in on 13 June, ending Netanyahu's 12-year tenure in office.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent a special congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Bennett upon his taking office. Bennett responed that he would "work to reinforce Israeli-Moroccan relations in all areas". Israel and Morocco restored diplomatic relations on December 10, 2020, as part of the Israel–Morocco normalization agreement involving the United States, which at the same time recognized Morocco's sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
On the fast of 9th of Av, 2021 as hundreds of Jews went to mourn on the temple mount, where it is currently forbidden for them to pray, he wrote "The Jewish people twice had a Jewish state on the Land of Israel, and both times we did not succeed to complete the eighth decade as an independent state, because of internal wars and baseless hatred ... At the time of the Roman siege on Jerusalem, the nation was divided, each group entrenched itself in its own position, and burned the food stores of the others, as part of the internal power struggle, so the Romans had a much easier task. The bitter end we all know, and until today every year on this date we mourn the awful destruction which a people with a little more baseless love, restraint, and listening, could have saved us from."
Bennett's positions have been described as "ultra-nationalist", and Bennett describes himself as "more right wing" than Netanyahu. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and supports cutting taxes.
In February 2012, Bennett published a plan to manage the Israeli–Palestinian conflict called "The Israel Stability Initiative." The plan was based in part on elements of earlier initiatives, such as "Peace on Earth" by Adi Mintz and the "Elon Peace Plan" by Binyamin Elon. It relied on statements of Netanyahu and Likud party ministers in favor of unilateral annexation of the West Bank. Bennett opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, saying: "I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state."
In January 2013, Bennett suggested a tripartition of the Palestinian territories, whereby Israel would unilaterally annex Area C, authority over the Gaza Strip would be transferred to Egypt, and Area A and Area B would remain with the Palestinian National Authority, but under the security umbrella of the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet to "ensure quiet, suppress Palestinian terrorism, and prevent Hamas from taking over the territory." Area C constituted 62% of the area, and approximately 365,000 people lived in Israeli settlements. Palestinians who lived in this area would be offered Israeli citizenship or permanent residency status (between 48,000, according to Bennett, and 150,000, according to other surveys). Finally, Israel would invest in creating roads so Palestinians could travel between Areas A and B without checkpoints, and invest in infrastructure and joint industrial zones, because "[p]eace grows from below — through people, and people in daily life." Bennett also resisted immigration of Palestinian refugees now living outside the West Bank, or the connection between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In 2011, he stated that there were about 50 factories in the West Bank industrial region where Israelis and Palestinians work together, and cited this as one workable approach to finding peace between the two sides.
In June 2013, Bennett suggested that Israel must learn to live with the Palestinian problem without a "surgical action" of separation to two states: "I have a friend who's got shrapnel in his rear end, and he's been told that it can be removed surgically, but it would leave him disabled [...]. So he decided to live with it. There are situations where insisting on perfection can lead to more trouble than it's worth." Bennett's "Shrapnel in the butt" quickly became widely known as representing his view of the Palestinian problem.
In response to Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners in 2013, Bennett said that Palestinian terrorists should be shot, adding: "I already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that." Bennett was widely condemned for these words, although he denied saying them, claiming he said merely that "terrorists should be killed if they pose an immediate life threat to our soldiers when in action." In January 2013, Bennett said: "There is not going to be a Palestinian state within the tiny land of Israel [referring to the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea]. It's just not going to happen. A Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years."
In December 2014, a group of academics who opposed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and members of The Third Narrative, a Labor Zionist organization, called on the U.S. and E.U. to impose sanctions on Bennett and three other Israelis "who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law." The academics, who called themselves Scholars for Israel and Palestine (SIP) and claimed to be "pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace", asked the U.S. and EU to freeze Bennett's foreign assets and impose visa restrictions. Bennett was chosen as a target for proposed sanctions because of his work in opposing the 2010 settlement freeze while he was director of the Yesha Council, actively supporting annexation of over 60% of the West Bank, and "pressing strongly for a policy of creeping annexation."
In October 2016, Bennett said: "On the matter of the Land of Israel, we have to move from holding action to a decision. We have to mark the dream, and the dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of the sovereign State of Israel. We have to act today, and we must give our lives. We can't keep marking the Land of Israel as a tactical target and a Palestinian state as the strategic target."
In November 2016, Bennett said that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States gave him hope that the two-state solution would no longer be considered viable, claiming: "The era of the Palestinian state is over."
According to Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, those who have worked with Bennett have privately said that much of his rhetoric is for electioneering purposes, and he is in fact more moderate than believed. In spite of his expressed right-wing views against a Palestinian state, while engaged in coalition negotiations for a unity government with Yair Lapid and other party leaders following the 2021 Knesset election, during which he was offered the prime ministership, Bennett agreed to a policy of not annexing any territory in the West Bank and to not build any new settlements while serving as prime minister in a potential unity government.
Economy and society
Bennett believes in less government regulation of the private sector and that private businesses are the engine of economic growth. He favors social support of vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled. Bennett has said Israel needs to break the monopoly of the tycoons, the major labor unions, and the Ministry of Defense, which in his opinion are strangling Israel's economy. He believes the key to reducing disparities is equality of opportunity and investment in education in the periphery, to give tools to populations of weaker economic backgrounds. By doing so, Bennett believes weaker populations in Israel will be given the opportunity to succeed professionally and financially. He supports the provision of land to veterans in the periphery, in the Negev, and the Galilee, to promote a national solution to the problem of "affordable housing" and a more equitable distribution of the population in Israel. He has also pledged to remove heavy bureaucratic challenges to small and medium-sized Israeli businesses.
As Economy Minister, Bennett oversaw a new strategy by Israel to increase trade with emerging markets around the world and reduce trade with the European Union, so as to diversify its foreign trade. The two main reasons for this shift are to take advantage of opportunities in emerging markets and to avert the threat of possible EU sanctions on Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bennett acknowledged that he was seeking to reduce Israel's economic dependence on the EU to reduce its influence on Israel. According to the Financial Times, Bennett is the primary architect of this economic pivot. Under his leadership, the Economy Ministry began opening new trade attaché offices in Asia, Africa, and South America, and also began closing some trade offices in Europe and consolidating others with offices in neighboring countries. As part of this process, Bennett opened negotiations with Russia and China on free trade agreements, oversaw continuing negotiations with India for a free trade agreement, and led economic delegations to China and India. While attending the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 2013 in Bali, Indonesia, Bennett held talks with delegations from some unspecified countries on the possibility of future free trade agreements.
Bennett implemented reforms to lower Israel's high food prices. Under his oversight, import duties and barriers were reduced, and mechanisms were set up to ensure more competition in the Israeli food industry. These reforms have been credited with a decline in Israeli food prices that began in April 2014 and continued throughout the rest of the year and into 2015. According to a Haaretz editorial, a fall in global commodity prices and dire financial straits among many Israeli consumers prompted the decline, not the reforms. Bennett has led a push to integrate Haredi men, many of whom are unemployed, into the workforce. According to Bennett, their integration into the workforce will greatly bolster economic growth. Under his "voucher plan", the Ministry of the Economy issues vouchers for hundreds of vocational schools that will allow Haredi men to avoid mandatory military service, at least temporarily, in exchange for enrolling in a vocational school to learn a trade. Bennett also wants to increase employment rate among Israeli-Arab women.
An adherent of Orthodox Judaism, Bennett opposes the implementation of same-sex marriage in Israel, "just as we don't recognize milk and meat together as kosher", but has expressed support for equivalent rights such as tax breaks for same-sex couples. Following the murder of a 16-year-old teenage girl at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in 2015, Bennet, who was Education Minister at the time, instructed the Education Ministry to prepare programs to prevent future attacks on the LGBTQ community, saying: "We are responding to this attack with actions and not just talk." While Bennett has voiced support for LGBTQ rights, saying "they deserve all of the civil rights", he stated in late 2020 that he had no plans to push for policy changes to help LGBTQ people.
Bennett's wife, Gilat, is a professional pastry chef. She was secular but following her husband she now observes the Sabbath and kashrut. The couple have four children and live in Ra'anana, a city 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of Tel Aviv. Their eldest son Yonatan is named after Yonatan Netanyahu and their youngest son David Emmanuel is named after Emmanuel Moreno, who was a comrade of Bennett's in the special forces. Bennett adheres to Modern Orthodox Judaism.
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