August 2, 2021

Naftali Bennett, an unlikely prime minister from the Israeli religious right

In a narrow, inglorious vote of confidence – 60 out of 120 Knesset MPs plus one abstention – Naftali Bennett took over as head of the Israeli government on Sunday, June 13. Here is a leader from the religious extreme right leading the destiny of Israel. A leader almost without troops, barely six members of Parliament. But it took a right-wing man to embody the chimera that is this coalition of eight parties, including the center and the left, united by their desire to depose Benyamin Netanyahu, and aware that Israel voted mainly on the right over the years. four elections, from April 2019 to March 2021.

If, in two months, a new ballot were to take place, Mr Bennett and his party, Yamina (“on the right”), would be swept away. The man arouses bitterness within his religious Zionist “family”. “Hats off! Who would have believed it ? Prime Minister with six terms… It is as if I entered Fouquet’s with twenty euros in my pocket and that I ordered white trout ”, ironically salutes Boaz Bismuth, editor of the free right-wing daily Isral Hayom, acquired from Mr. Netanyahu.

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Weak, Mr. Bennett will undoubtedly be weak in this coalition. It is he who would have the most to lose with its dissolution, when the least minister can veto it. The centrist Yaïr Lapid, true leader of this team and prime minister “alternating”, is to succeed him in 2023. But the symbol is colossal: a defender of the divine right of Israel to dominate all the lands which extend from the Jordan to the Mediterranean inherits the seat of David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State, socialist and secular.

A “sincere nationalism”

If Mr. Bennett can appear today as a man of compromise, pragmatic or opportunist, it is because the Israeli political space has normalized him. At 49, the trajectory of this former special forces, successful ex-entrepreneur in tech, accompanies that of a country which has evacuated the Palestinian question for a decade. Rarely put in difficulty over the conflict, Mr. Bennett nurtures a centrist fantasy: he can dream of himself not in the middle of the political spectrum, but not far away.

Naftali Bennett is the son of liberal American Jews who immigrated to Israel after the 1967 war. He received a classical Orthodox religious education and, like his parents, suffered the full brunt of the Oslo peace accords, which suggest, in the 1990s, the abandonment by Israel of part of the territories conquered in 1967, and the birth of a Palestinian state.

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