He sells himself as a man for all Israelis, and a remarkably large number are buying the product – so much so that Naftali Bennett, a relative unknown just a couple of years ago, is expected to win enough seats in parliament to be Benjamin Netanyahu’s first pick to join a new coalition government after Tuesday’s election.
And the 40-year-old Mr. Bennett, the wealthy former CEO of a software start-up, is determined to set the political direction of that government – one well to the right of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing Likud party.
Sunday night in Tel Aviv, “Naftali,” he wants everyone to call him, dropped by a small neighbourhood pub to chat with the 30 or so patrons. From inside the u-shaped bar he fielded questions and bantered with those at the counter in a performance designed to impress – not so much the diners and drinkers, but the larger national audience he could reach through the 50 or so journalists he had in tow.
Mr. Bennett, a former Israel Defence Forces officer, spoke to the crowd as he might address soldiers under his command, even snapping his fingers when someone at the back began to chatter with a companion. Reserves Major Bennett insists on everyone’s attention.
Earlier Sunday, at a southern Israeli pre-military school for young men hoping to get into elite army units such as the one in which Mr. Bennett fought, the candidate took the opportunity to show off his physical prowess, doing chin-ups on a bar in the training area. “This is something I have to do,” he said. Clenching his kippa in his teeth, he jumped up and did four of them. “I haven’t done that for years,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
The men, all first-time voters, were suitably impressed. Few if any other party leaders could have pulled that off.
Mr. Netanyahu’s party is widely expected to win the most seats in the election, but not enough to form a government without coalition partners. That’s where Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home party could set the agenda for the next israeli government.
A pro-settlement agenda makes Mr. Bennett hugely popular among Israeli settlers in the West Bank, so much so that he’s been sending other members of his party to campaign there while he works to assure other Israelis that he cares about their interests too.
To the city dwellers struggling to make ends meet, he says he wants “to break up the monopolies here and to break up the stranglehold the big unions have on the Israeli economy.”
“I think it’s a sin,” he has said, “that most Israelis can barely [afford to] live here.”
To prospective soldiers and their parents, he says that everyone, including the Haredim who claim enormous numbers of exemptions to allow them to study for years in religious schools, “must share the burden” of securing the country’s defense.
And to his primary base of support – settlers and the national-religious community – he proclaims flatly there will never be a Palestinian state. “It’s just not going to happen,” he said recently. “A Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict he believes is “insoluble” and adds that most Israelis “couldn’t care less about it any more.”
Instead of traditional approaches, Mr. Bennett has proposed the annexation of the 60 per cent of the West Bank that contains all the Israeli settlements. Palestinians would be given the option of accepting Israeli citizenship or moving to the other 40 per cent of the territory governed by a Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Bennett acknowledges that the international community would strongly oppose such an arrangement. But, he says in essence, “so what.”
He recalls that in 1981, prime minister Menachem Begin was warned not to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967. He did so anyway, received a few criticisms, but the world got over it, Mr. Bennett says.
“The world hasn’t recognized Jerusalem as our capital,” Mr. Bennett adds, “or the Western Wall as part of Israel. So this [annexed West Bank territory] would just be another area that the world doesn’t recognize.”
The confident Mr. Bennett advocates a lot of things that surprise people such as giving up the annual $3-billion in U.S. aid so Israel can be “independent,” and cutting Israel’s defence spending because neither Egypt nor Syria poses the threat they once did.
Mr. Bennett was born in Haifa to parents who moved to Israel from San Francisco shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War. The family had been liberal Reform Jews until they spent a couple of years in Montreal in the mid-70s promoting Israel’s Institute of Technology, the Technion.
It was there that the Bennetts fell in with more observant Jews and found themselves observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher kitchen.
The young Naftali was a great reader, his parents say, and Mr. Bennett often speaks of the two most influential books in his life: a biography of Meir Har-Zion, a legendary 1950s commando, and a collection of the letters of Yonatan Netanyahu, Mr. Netanyahu’s brother, who was killed leading the rescue mission of Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.
Mr. Bennett grew up to live his dream of serving in an elite unit, and he proved to be a demanding commander. In a 1996 operation into Lebanon, he drove his troops to secure their objective in less time than called for in his orders.
When one of his men injured a leg along the way and held up the unit, then-commander Bennett reportedly told him he could either go back to Israel or keep up with the others without complaint. The soldier kept up and kept silent. It was learned later he had broken his leg and was airlifted out.
Mr. Bennett later said that the soldier’s feat “symbolizes what I demand from myself and from my men.”
For a year and a half, the elite commander and later a high-tech start-up whiz even went to work as Mr. Netanyahu’s chief of staff while in opposition in 2006-7.
He shook up the Prime Minister’s office which had been in the doldrums, but is said to have run afoul of Mr. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and was ultimately dismissed. The exact reasons have never been made public.
With Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home party eating away at Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud support, the Prime Minister recently has turned to attacking Mr. Bennett and his extremist candidates.
Asked if he thought the friction might jeopardize his chances of being invited into a new Netanyahu-controlled coalition, Mr. Bennett remained confident. “We’re going to get along quite well,” he said. “Yes, there are tensions, because we disagree on some stuff, but it’s nothing that 12, 14, or 15 Knesset mandates won’t solve. He’ll get over it.”