Israel’s 13th and current Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, has been in politics since 2006. By profession, he is a software and tech entrepreneur.
After four elections in only two years, and with Israel getting stuck in an agonizing stalemate, Bennett seemed unable to reach the power of Israeli politics. He failed to cross the electoral threshold in the April 2019 Knesset election, and his right-wing party Yamina had only seven seats following the March 2021 election.
And yet, against all odds, Bennett is now Israel’s Prime Minister.
On June 13, 2021, Bennett won a confidence vote in a razor-thin margin, only 60 votes to 59, to oust his former boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, ending the latter’s long 12-year tenure as Prime Minister. Bennett now leads the most diverse coalition government that Israel has ever encountered, including the first Arab party to serve in the government.
For sure, it is an entirely new – albeit still uncertain – era in Israeli politics.
Naftali Bennett was born in Haifa on March 25, 1972. He is the youngest of three sons born to Jim and Myrna Bennett, Jewish Americans who migrated from San Francisco to Israel in 1967. Both of Naftali’s parents were from Ashkenazi Jewish backgrounds.
His early childhood consisted of going in and out of Israel and North America, primarily due to his father’s job. Jim Bennett was a successful real estate entrepreneur. When the family was back in the United States for a while, he returned to Israel to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Myrna Bennett worked as deputy director-general of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, a non-profit organization of American and Canadian Jews who have made their immigration (aliyah) to Israel. As a result of his father’s peripatetic job, the young Bennett went to different schools in Israel and the United States until his family finally returned to Haifa when he was ten.
Military and business career
When Naftali Bennett was 18, he joined the IDF in 1990. While in the military, he served in the elite Sayeret Matkal and Maglan units, whose specialty is operating behind enemy lines. While in Maglan, he served as a company commander. He participated in the First Intifada (1985 – 1993) and the Israeli occupation of Lebanon during the 1982 – 2000 south Lebanon conflict. He was discharged from active service in 1996, although he continued to serve in the reserves and attained the rank of Rav seren (Major). He received a degree in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
As he ended his active service in the IDF, Bennett continued to serve as a reservist while making a name in the field of business. In 1999, he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company, and served as its CEO. Bennett then moved to the United States in 2000 to build a career as a software entrepreneur. He settled at the Upper East Side of Manhattan. However, he would return to Israel time and again for his military duty. As a reservist officer, Bennett took part in Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada (2000 – 2005) and the 2006 Lebanon War.
In 2005, Bennett sold Cyota to RSA Security LLC for $145 million and returned to Israel as a multimillionaire.
Bennett continued to concentrate on his businesses in Israel. In 2009, he served as CEO of Soluto, a tech company providing cloud-based services that enabled remote support for PCs and mobile devices. He was engaged, along with his business partners, in raising funds for other Israeli start-up companies. Bennett also invested several hundred thousand dollars in the American financial tech company Payoneer.
Bennett began his political career in 2006 when he was appointed Chief of Staff to Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter had finished his first term as Prime Minister and was serving as Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Bennett would hold this position until 2008, just a year before Netanyahu was re-elected Prime Minister. After that, he continued to focus on his tech businesses.
He returned to the political scene in 2011 when he founded the My Israel, a right-wing extra-parliamentary government, with Ayelet Shaked. The party claims to have around 94,000 members.
In 2012, Bennett was elected as party leader of The Jewish Home. His desire to prevent the possibility of forming a Palestinian state became the central focus of his pitch to voters. His relatively young age and fresh ideas gave his party considerable leverage. As a result, The Jewish Home won 12 seats out of 120 in the 2013 Knesset elections. It was just behind the Labor party, which had 15 seats.
In 2013, Bennett was appointed Minister of Economy and Minister of Religious Services, which he held until 2015. Later that same year, he was appointed Minister of Diaspora Affairs, a position he held until 2019.
In 2015, Bennett was appointed Minister of Education. While still serving under Netanyahu’s government, Bennett continued to outflank his boss on issues regarding Palestinian territories. He has been consistently firm in his opposition to a two-state solution since he entered politics, citing security and ideological issues.
In 2018, Bennett left The Jewish Home to form a new party, the New Right, with Shaked. Another right-wing party, the New Right intended to appeal to both religious and secular Jews.
However, the new party failed to win any seats in the April 2019 Knesset election. The following June, Netanyahu dismissed him as Minister of Education. Bennett entered the Knesset again and formed another right-wing party, Yamina. After the Knesset was dissolved and the second elections were held the following September, the New Right joined Yamina as one of its members, alongside The Jewish Home and the far-right Tkuma party. He regained his seat after the elections and was appointed Minister of Defense.
In May 2020, Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, who is the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, negotiated to form a new government. Following these negotiations, Bennett ended his tenure as Minister of Defense as Yamina announced it would go into the opposition. Gantz succeeded him as the new Minister of Defense. The Jewish Home and Tkuma later defected from Yamina; but despite this, Yamina won seven seats in the Knesset elections in March 2021.
Election as Prime Minister
The March 2021 Knesset elections – the fourth general elections in only two years – enabled Bennett to become a kingmaker. After Yair Lapid, Leader of the Opposition and leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid (which united with Israel Resilience Party in 2019 to form the Blue and White alliance), received a mandate to form a government the following May, Bennett joined a coalition with him. This coalition, consisting of a motley crew of left- and right-wing parties, sought to oust Netanyahu, who had been indicted on corruption charges.
The following May 30, Bennett announced that he would serve as prime minister in a rotation government with Lapid, where he would lead the country for two years before handing it over to Lapid, who would be Prime Minister for another two years. On June 13, Bennett won a confidence vote through a razor-thin lead, 60 to 59. The Knesset approved the new government and swore in Bennett as the new Prime Minister, ending Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure in office.