“It’s not like [Israel is] replacing Netanyahu with a person who believes in equality for all, who believes in freedom for all, who believes in human rights for all. They’re replacing Netanyahu with an ultra-nationalist who is going to put forward his ultra-nationalist agenda.” – Diana Buttu, former PLO spokesperson
JERUSALEM — After more than a decade, four elections, three corruption charges, and a tumultuous parliamentary vote, someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister this week.
Naftali Bennett, the far-right nationalist who has replaced Netanyahu, heads the most politically diverse coalition in the nation’s history, but his politics are far from progressive.
Who is Naftali Bennett?
Unlike his predecessors, Bennett is more of a novice than a veteran politician. While he has served in several ministerial roles, his government experience is relatively brief.
Bennett began his political career as Netanyahu’s chief of staff in 2005, when the latter served as opposition leader. Prior to his first role in government, he served in the Israeli army as a commando unit officer during Israel’s 1996 offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon and was indirectly involved in the Kfar Qana Massacre, in which Israeli artillery fire killed 102 Lebanese civilians at a United Nations facility.
The 49-year-old Bennett was born in Haifa to parents who immigrated to Israel from San Francisco in 1967. Donning a kippah (a cap often worn by Jewish men during rituals), Bennett is Israel’s first religiously observant prime minister.
While not a settler himself, Bennet is seen as an icon of Israel’s settler right. He was appointed director general of the Yesha Council, the political body representing Israeli settlers, in 2009. The following year, he founded the My Israel Movement along with fellow Israeli politician Ayelet Shaked. The Zionist group works to eradicate what it identifies as “anti-Israel activity” online, specifically in relation to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Bennett became chairman of the religious and right-wing Jewish Home Party in 2012, but left in 2018 to create the New Right Party, which is currently the sole member of his far-right electoral alliance, Yamina (or “to the right” in Hebrew). He was often perceived as standing on the sidelines of politics — an outsider desperately wanting in. Except for his time as education minister, almost every stint as an Israeli minister was short-lived. His contribution to politics has been less action-oriented and more centered on his inflammatory statements.
A history of racist rhetoric
Bennett is notorious for the myriad of controversial remarks he’s made over the years:
- During a parliamentary debate on releasing Palestinian prisoners, Bennett bragged about “killing Arabs.” “If we capture terrorists, we need to just kill them,” Bennett said in 2013. “I’ve already killed a lot of Arabs in my life, and there is no problem with that.”
- In 2018, he advocated for a shoot-to-kill policy for Palestinians crossing the Gaza border. When questioned about whether children would be part of this policy, he said, “They are not children — they are terrorists. We are fooling ourselves. I see the photos.”
- During a televised debate in 2010, Bennett said to Palestinian lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here.”
- In an interview with The New Yorker in 2013, Bennett reiterated his strong opposition to a Palestinian state. “I will do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state being founded in the Land of Israel,” Bennett said.
Bennett has long advocated for full annexation of Israeli-controlled Area C of the Occupied West Bank, which comprises 60% of the West Bank. He said, in 2013:
The most important thing in the Land of Israel is to build, build, build [settlements]… It’s important that there will be an Israeli presence everywhere. Our principal problem is still Israel’s leaders’ unwillingness to say in a simple manner that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel. “
In 2014, Bennett referred to Israeli annexation of the West Bank, telling reporters Israel “will be gradually attempting to apply Israeli law on Israeli controlled areas of Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank].”
And more recently, in February of this year, he said in an interview, “As long as I have any power and control, I won’t hand over one centimeter of the Land of Israel. Period.”
While Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization, is happy Netanyahu is out of office, she doesn’t see the new leader as the right kind of change. “It’s not like [Israel is] replacing Netanyahu with a person who believes in equality for all, who believes in freedom for all, who believes in human rights for all,” Buttu said. “They’re replacing Netanyahu with an ultra-nationalist who is going to put forward his ultra-nationalist agenda.”
Bennett’s possible policies
Bennett’s lack of a governing record makes it difficult to predict what kind of leader he’ll be and what kind of policies he may enact.
Paul Scham, executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, surmises the new prime minister will tackle mundane but necessary agenda items like passing a budget and solving Israel’s infrastructure crisis.
“He recognizes that this isn’t a time for a bold action on the ideological front,” Scham told MintPress News.
Two hours after Bennett was sworn in as prime minister, President Joe Biden phoned the new leader to congratulate him. By contrast, Biden waited a month after his own swearing-in ceremony to call Netanyahu. Scham suggested such actions hint Bennett may prioritize relations with the United States and remain diplomatic in an effort to undo his predecessor’s damage.
“Since Bibi seemed to have this adverse relationship with [former President Barack] Obama and was very pro-Republican, Bennett will take care not to push the buttons, like denying that a Palestinian state will ever come into existence,” Scham said. On several occasions, Netanyahu has rejected the formation of a Palestinian state under his leadership.
On the other hand, Buttu believes Bennett will want to bolster his right-wing credentials in the face of criticism for joining forces with Palestinian and leftist parties. Israel’s new government was formed through a coalition of several conflicting political parties, including Muslim party United Arab List, the far-left Meretz Party, centrist Yesh Atid Party, the Labor Party and Bennett’s Yamina.
Earlier this month, hundreds of right-wing activists demonstrated in front of Shaked’s and other fellow Yamina members’ homes against the far-right coalition teaming up with left-wing parties.
“He’s been saying in statements ‘Now is the time for a national unity government,” Buttu said. “But then to his crowd, he’s saying, ‘Don’t worry, this is a right-wing government.’”
New leader, same agenda
While other Israeli politicians often tone down their rhetoric to fit a global standard, Bennett thrives on unquestionably racist language.
“If anything, Bennett is just that much worse because his ideology is an ideology of extreme racism,” Buttu said. “Whereas when it comes to Netanyahu, he’s learned how to polish up that same ideology.”
Despite a new government coming to power, the politics of settler-colonialism remain the same. In that regard, peace and any chance for Palestinian liberation feel out of reach.
“People are happy Netanyahu is out, and my worry is that because Netanyahu is out and because [Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Yair] Lapid is backing Bennett, there’s going to be a red carpet rolled out for a person who is openly racist,” Buttu said, cautioning that placing Bennett on a pedestal will make the mistake of validating the politician’s perspectives. “Legitimating him inside Israel once again means it’s okay to have a prime minister who is so openly ultra-nationalist and who believes in land theft.”
And with this extremist ideology heading the Israeli government, the recent wave of settler terrorism may become even more emboldened.
Feature photo | Naftali Bennett gives a statement at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, June 6, 2021. Menahem Kahana | Pool via AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.