Naftali Bennett: From Startup Success to Israel’s First Orthodox Prime Minister

Naftali Bennett (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty)
Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty

Naftali Bennett is set to become Israel’s 13th prime minister on Sunday, completing a feat of political daring and audacity that saw him convert 6% of the vote — seven seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset — into a path to the country’s leadership.

Bennett built his political career on his success in the startup world, becoming a multimillionaire by his early thirties. To many Israelis, he represents the boldness of the country’s startup culture, and the coming-of-age of a generation raised in the shadow of Palestinian terrorism.

He will be the country’s first Orthodox prime minister, meaning that he observes all the Jewish laws, including Sabbath observance. Yet he will also lead the first Israeli government that includes an Arab party as a significant coalition partner.

The Times of Israel calls Bennett a “political gambler.” That is certainly true: he has risked everything to rise to power in a rotation that will see his coalition partner, Yair Lapid of the center-left Yesh Atid party, take over in two years.

His unlikely success is partly the result of negotiating skill, but also a result of unusual circumstances.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had enjoyed astonishing success in government, but the country had tired of him after 12 years, with corruption charges — however flimsy — hanging over his head. The left, which has long been a discredited force in Israeli politics, could not replace him outright. But Bennett could present a conservative face at the head of a left-wing alternative to Netanyahu.

He was once chief of staff to outgoing Netanyahu before turning on him. He has broken every election promise thus far to voters, including a declaration that no one with fewer than ten seats should become prime minister.

Perhaps that penchant for contradiction is a deep character trait. The Times adds: “Bennett is a study in contrasts. Born to American immigrant parents, he doesn’t consider himself part of Israel’s English-speaking community; an ex-commando and West Bank annexationist, he lives in liberal-leaning suburban Ra’anana; a successful tech millionaire, he has little expertise in computer science.” Moreover, he is on Israel’s right, but the bulk of the government he leads is left-wing.

To succeed, he will have to hold together the most diverse coalition in the country’s history, while wrangling a somewhat distant U.S. administration and facing new threats from Iran.

He might just do it.

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