The Meaning of Israel’s First Religious Prime Minister
With Naftali Bennett, the homeland of the Jewish people is about to see what it’s like having an observant Jewish leader.
Israel is on the brink of its first government in 12 years led by someone other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If finalized over the coming week, the new coalition would be, in multiple ways, a historic one. It would comprise a record number of parties, including, for the first time, an Arab list. A record eight women would serve as ministers. The party sending its leader to be prime minister earned the smallest electoral haul of any before it. But one first may be remembered as more historic than all of these: Israel will have, for the first time, a prime minister who is religiously observant.
Naftali Bennett announced last weekend that he had reached a deal with the party led by Yair Lapid—a centrist, secular former news anchor—in which each would serve as prime minister for two years in turn. If the agreement is consummated—Netanyahu and others are working furiously to sabotage it—the result will be the most unusual government in Israel’s history, uniting Bennett, a man of the deep right-wing, with partners from the center (Lapid), the left (Labor), and even an Arab-Islamist party with ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bennett is a territorial maximalist who believes in annexing 60 percent of the West Bank, with an autonomy arrangement for the Palestinians there. He believes a two-state solution, still cherished by the Biden administration and dwindling elements of the Israeli left, would bring “disaster” on the Jewish state: “I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That’s the equation.”
And yet he’s not quite the wild-eyed settler extremist of caricature, either: He boasts native-level English, a formidable military record, a bank account plumped by an exit from a successful tech startup, and a happy home with four children in a bourgeois neighborhood near Tel Aviv.
More than anything, the potential advent of a Prime Minister Bennett represents the mainstreaming of religion in the State of Israel’s 73rd year. He aims to unite right and left, devout and secular, the hills of Samaria with the country’s high-tech center. He has long believed religious and right-wing Israelis are the silenced majority, their voices obstructed by left-wing elites in media, the courts, and academia. But he favors honey to vinegar; he wants to bring Tekoa to Tel Aviv. If in the process the country’s face becomes a little more religious, a little more right-wing, so much the better.
“What is happening is a revolution,” he told Haaretz nearly a decade ago, and “for me in particular, it’s important to be a bridge to you. One of the biggest challenges from my perspective is to connect you to religious Zionism, too.”
The central figures of Israel’s founding were secular. Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s visionary, was not only irreligious, but his vision of the Jewish state was barely informed by Jewish tradition. David Ben-Gurion, the architect of Israel’s independence and its first prime minister (and longest serving, until Netanyahu), listed himself in a 1960 census as an atheist. In a recently revealed letter from the same year, he describes his reaction toward soldiers praying at his desert shack on Yom Kippur. “I did not envy them,” he wrote; prayer “may feel pleasant—yet it is not reality, but self-deception.”
All of Ben-Gurion’s successors in the state’s first three decades were secular and socialist. His immediate successors—Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin—partook in religious rituals only at their own funerals. Even Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Zionism, was largely unschooled in religious tradition. Benjamin Netanyahu, Jabotinsky’s ideological heir, works on the Sabbath and rarely enters a synagogue.
Bennett, too, was raised in a non-religious home, to Myrna and Jim Bennett—liberal Reform Jews from San Francisco. But in spring 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in a bid to choke off Israel, and a coalition of Arab states appeared massing for an offensive that would end the country’s lifespan at 19. According to Bennett, his parents were stunned that their Jewish-American friends seemed unperturbed, continuing their everyday routines as the Jewish state’s existence hung in the balance. When Israel prevailed in six days—taking the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula to boot—they boarded the first civilian flight there. In Upper Galilee, they volunteered at that most secular and progressive of all Israeli institutions: the kibbutz.
The Bennetts subsequently settled in Haifa, where Jim worked at the Technion, Israel’s venerable technological university and where Naftali, the youngest of three sons, was born in 1972. The difficulties of integration, however, proved too much and they returned to California the next summer.
In October of that year, however, another war broke out, with far different fortunes for Israelis. The Yom Kippur War caught them utterly unawares; the country suffered heavy losses and its existence again appeared in doubt. Jim flew to join his reserve unit in the Golan, and stayed with it for several months. Myrna and the boys followed him back to Israel, and the move was now permanent.
The family’s religious awakening began slowly, not in Israel but Montreal and later New York, where Naftali’s father was sent on behalf of the Technion and then the Jewish Agency. “We enrolled the children in Jewish schools,” the elder Bennett, who died in 2015, told Haaretz in a long interview two years before. “We needed a kosher kitchen, because other children visited us at home. We started with simple things, like lighting candles on Sabbath eve. One thing led to another, until we also started to attend synagogue and so on.”
When Bennett was a teenager, he switched from coed public school to yeshiva. He then joined the army, enlisting in Sayeret Matkal, the same elite commando in which Netanyahu had served. Bennett later earned an officer’s commission, and commanded a company in Maglan, a mysterious, high-tech unit operating deep behind enemy lines whose very existence was kept secret for decades. In 1996, during an operation in the village of Qana, south Lebanon, he called in airstrikes on a U.N. compound that killed more than 100 civilians. The controversy over that day has followed him ever since.
Friends from his youth recall him as religious, but not fanatic. “He always had female friends and today he is absolutely not extreme, but normal in his religious observance,” said one.
For several years during his army service he went bareheaded. In 1995, Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Bennett returned to wearing the skullcap: “The backlash of the Rabin assassination was a backlash against all the religious—blame them!—which I thought was very unfair.”
Bennett’s relatively lax religiosity is reflected in his personal life, too. In the army he met, then married Gilat, an accomplished pastry chef from a secular home. In 2000, after a few months in a West Bank settlement they made a dramatic relocation to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, he tried his luck in the tech economy while Gilat won plaudits for her crème brûlée at some of the city’s plushest spots.
Bennett’s own success was not long in coming. Within a few years the startup he cofounded—the anti-fraud software Cyota—was acquired by the Israeli-American cybersecurity firm RSA for $145 million, a few million of which went to Bennett himself.
His transition from that tech windfall to the world of high politics was mediated by the Second Lebanon War of 2006. “I was suddenly commanding soldiers in some village in Lebanon and fighting Hezbollah. It’s like the weirdest thing. And what I saw in that war is friends of mine injured or dying because of incompetent or immoral leadership,” he said earlier this year. “It drove me almost crazy — how much good people are suffering because of bad leaders. That’s what drove me into politics.”
Bennett—now with an established reputation as a tech entrepreneur and elite-unit commander with right-wing convictions—caught the attention of Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition to the now-defunct, centrist Kadima party. He signed on as chief of staff, distinguishing himself by loyalty to the Likud leader, whose abilities he admired and whose late brother—the hero of the celebrated 1976 Entebbe raid—he idolized. It was in Netanyahu’s office that he also met Ayelet Shaked, a secular, right-wing former software engineer from Tel Aviv with whom he would form a long-term political partnership. After two years, Bennett and Netanyahu parted amid rumors of bad blood with the premier’s wife, Sara.
In 2010 became head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Israeli municipal councils in the West Bank. He butted heads with the settlement enterprise’s old guard: They were too confrontational, too divisive. He wanted not to defeat the country’s liberal-left elite, but to win their hearts and minds, to persuade them that the Land and Torah of Israel were their inheritance as much as his.
In 2012 Bennett left the Likud and won the leadership of Jewish Home, a small national-religious party. The party prospered with him at the helm, jumping to fourth in elections the following year. With newfound leverage, he entered government boasting multiple portfolios simultaneously. As economy minister he encouraged greater integration of Israel’s most marginal citizens: ultra-Orthodox and Arabs. As minister of religious and diaspora affairs he held friendly meetings with non-Orthodox delegations from America and made space for mixed-gender and female prayer at the Western Wall.
“He is not ultra-Orthodox, his yarmulke is small and he is considered ‘religious light,’ perhaps the lightest possible,” wrote one analyst. “He is not very religious necessarily,” added a former high-tech colleague (who hastened to add: “But he is very right-wing.”)
In late 2018 Bennett and Shaked left the Jewish Home and established a new party, the New Right, with the explicit aim of drawing together secular and religious Jewish-Israelis. The gamble failed: In the April 2019 elections the party failed to pass the minimum threshold for entering the Knesset. His political stock was as its nadir; he handed the reins to Shaked, under whom New Right joined two other right-wing parties under the umbrella Yamina (“Rightward”).
The new coalition performed well, and Bennett ultimately retook its leadership. In late 2019, Netanyahu appointed him defense minister, fearing he would join Lapid and others in a bid to oust him from office. Bennett filled the post barely six months, during a relatively uneventful period (by local standards) that offered little opportunity to distinguish himself. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he enlisted the military’s full intelligence capabilities, and continued the fight against the virus even after leaving government. As Netanyahu’s public-health effort foundered, Bennett built his own shadow-corona cabinet with a crew of medical, economic and business experts, and even managed to publish a book on battling the epidemic. Bennett was likely the single Israeli politician to have gained political capital from the scope and timing of the corona crisis.
Meanwhile, the growing breach between Bennett and his former mentor became public, as he blamed Netanyahu for rising prices, the bungled virus response, sharpening internal divides, and delaying promises to annex large parts of the West Bank. Just last week, Bennett slammed the premier for mishandling the spiraling security situation in Gaza, in Jerusalem, and between Jews and Arabs around the country. “I do not remember such a period of weakness, dysfunction, and national embarrassment,” he wrote, slamming Netanyahu’s “cult of personality.”
Bennett’s apparent arrival as prime minister raises an inevitable question. Is he, given the odd circumstances of his rise, a mere fluke in this country’s story, or does he represent an irreversible tide toward the right, toward religion, and toward a one-state Greater Israel?
Perhaps not quite either. The advent of this country’s first hard-right, religious premier does not necessarily mean it is turning into the Jewish Republic of Israel, the mirror image of its Iranian nemesis, or into an illiberal pseudo-democracy on the model of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary. It still has a free press, sprawling Pride parades, and an electoral system so democratic as to inhibit the actual functioning of democracy. Israel remains a massively complex country whose fault lines don’t always hug the curves most familiar to Western observers: left vs. right; faith vs. science; Jew vs. Arab; peace vs. war.
But it does represent a broader acceptance in Israel of religion’s growing presence in the public square. Lapid’s late father headed a party whose core platform was protecting secularism and combating religious coercion; as recently as the early 2000s it was the third-largest faction in parliament.
Much water has flown since then, to borrow a Hebrew expression. There were the grim years of the Second Intifada, the 2005 pullout from Gaza and the surge in rockets that followed, and the crashing failure of the Oslo Accords’ two-state vision. There is no straight or direct line leading from these developments to a Bennett premiership, but there is the feeling, deep and wide across the country, that the future promised by Israel’s historically secular, center-left leadership has proved a mirage.
“I don’t support religious coercion, but I do believe that Judaism is our ‘why;: Judaism is the reason for our existence and the justification for our existence, and the meaning of our existence,” he once told the liberal journalist Ari Shavit. “I know that for your ‘tribe,’ this is difficult. It is difficult because your tribe established the state in a secular-socialist spirit. And as you see the society changing and the state changing, you feel like you are done for.
“Your feeling is that the home that had been your home is no longer yours. I am not indifferent to your distress. I am also personally connected to your ethos,” he added. “My whole life I’ve had one foot here and one foot there.”
Bennett, after all, now lives not in a West Bank settlement like some right-wing leaders (Avigdor Lieberman, another party leader in the new coalition, lives deep in the Judean desert). Instead he resides in Raanana, an affluent city just outside Tel Aviv with a large English-speaking contingent. His wife, who does not wear any identifiably religious attire, now works as a parenting counselor, her cannily managed Facebook page typified by posts like, “Let’s talk potty training.”
The second inevitable question relates to the Bennett-Biden relationship. For over a decade, Netanyahu has paid lip service (if not always consistent) to the two-state solution that has been U.S. Middle East policy since the George W. Bush administration. Bennett, by contrast, rejected former President Donald Trump’s Israel-embracing “deal of the century” because it envisioned a Palestinian state, albeit a small, chopped up, and demilitarized one.
President Joe Biden has thus far continued Washington’s decades-long tradition of bipartisan backing for its Israeli ally. Yet that support is fraying among Democrats; last month’s 11-day war with Hamas made plain that the country’s image in the party has changed quickly and dramatically. The Democrats are shifting toward the left, and younger Americans as a whole are becoming less devout. Bennett understands that the rising generation in the Democratic Party—and among American Jews, who overwhelmingly vote for it—is rapidly diverging from its counterparts in Israel.
“I’m cognizant of the fact that especially younger American Jews tend to be way more liberal and left compared to the younger generation in Israel, which tends to be much more conservative and right,” he said recently. “I get that. I call that, arguments within the family. How do you solve it? Well, you don’t really solve it. You live with it, and you embrace it.”
Bennett will likely be the weakest prime minister in Israeli history. The coalition deal includes a parity provision between his right-wing bloc and Lapid’s more-centrist one, with each able to veto new bills at will. With such an eclectic alliance, these provisions virtually ensure the absence of dramatic legislation, particularly on the issue most important to the outside world: Israel’s apparent forever war with the Palestinians. Bennett may have big plans—West Bank annexation chief among them—but the circumstances of this strangest of governments mean most will have to wait.
“Nobody will have to give up their ideology, but all will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” he said in announcing the agreement.
The Hebrew-language commentariat has cast its usual cynicism on the arrangement, with one analyst venturing that the new government would last six months at best. But the presumptive prime minister is nothing if not capable, and he will be loath to bow out of a position he has awaited his whole life. For now, barring any eleventh-hour surprises, in becoming Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett will have already made history.
Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst, and the former deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. His first book, “Fire Before Dawn: The First Palestinian Revolt and the Struggle for the Holy Land,” is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.