For many Americans, the name and face of Benjamin Netanyahu have been synonymous with Israel herself for over a decade. At 27 years of age, I have no memory of Israeli politics before Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time in 2009. Stern, careful, and deliberate, he weathered the nausea-inducing vacillations of the Obama and Trump presidencies with a stoic’s resolve. He was constancy amid the turmoil.
On June 14, however, Netanyahu’s twelve-year continuous rule as prime minister came to an end after a 60-59 vote to form a new government. Replacing him is not one but two prime ministers. Naftali Bennett of Yamina, a small religious Zionist party, will take the lead chair in the Israeli parliament — called the Knesset — for the first two years of the four-year session. Bennett is Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister, and his foreign policy views have typically been similar to Netanyahu’s, especially in the firm stance of both against Iran.
When his 104 weeks in the position finish, Bennett will cede the PM’s seat to Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, a center-left party, for the remaining two years.
In sum, a politically heterogeneous coalition of Netanyahu’s political enemies — some very much of his own making — came together to oust him from office and usher in a new age of Israeli politics. While Netanyahu licks his wounds at the head of his still-powerful Likud party, the world must reckon with a new political landscape in that small but mighty state of Israel.
To better understand this new landscape, I reached out to Haviv Rettig Gur, senior political analyst for the Times of Israel, and Eugene Kontorovich, director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law at George Mason University Scalia Law School. Their combined knowledge was profoundly enlightening and undergirds this primer.
Before all else, why should we care who the prime minister of Israel is?
For reasons of domestic safety, as well as of religious and cultural kinship. As Kontorovich more cogently puts it, “Israel is one of America’s closest allies. It is crucial to America’s security, but also to America’s conception of itself. Israel is on the front line amid the conflict with Iran and Islamic terror.”
Who is Naftali Bennett, the new Israeli prime minister?
Bennett is someone who has had a series of short but tremendously successful careers, ranging from leading tech start-ups to reaching the highest echelons of the Israeli special forces. Gur explained that “[Bennett’s life] tells the story Israelis like to tell about themselves. He’s representative of an Israeli sense of self. That has allowed him to be an acceptable figure as prime minister . . . to audiences that disagree with him deeply on many issues.”
The son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett was born and raised primarily in Haifa, a liberal multi-ethnic coastal city in the north of Israel.
At age 18, he earned his way into the physically grueling and socially prestigious Sayeret Matkal, the elite reconnaissance unit of the IDF referred to colloquially as “the Unit.” He saw combat and acquitted himself well, ascending to an officer’s rank. (The Israeli military does not have the two-track officer and enlisted routes that the U.S. and U.K. do, but instead starts all recruits as enlisted.)
After six years in the military, Bennett moved to New York City, establishing a company named Cyota, a producer of anti-fraud software. Again, after six years — this time increment crops up repeatedly for him — Bennett sold his stake in the company for $145 million.
He returned to Israel, and by 2006 was on the Lebanese border hunting down Hezbollah rocket cells. Here he experienced, according to Gur, “the strategic errors and bad management from the Israeli side. . . . It was a war where the Israeli high command was deeply unimpressive.”
After winning a confrontation, Israeli command would pull IDF soldiers from the captured towns, allowing Hezbollah to occupy and rebuild the defenses within them and continue their bombardments of Israeli cities. Bennett was deeply frustrated by what he saw as abominable leadership and entered politics to rectify those shortcomings.
Bennett managed Netanyahu’s primary campaign in 2007, but the two had a falling out in 2008. He moved on to become a staunch pro-settlement advocate, locking horns again with Netanyahu in 2010 over the latter’s perceived capitulation to the Obama administration’s demand to freeze the construction of settlements for a period of time. Bennett would ultimately call for his former boss’s removal from office.
This adversarial relationship continues this very day, with Bennett having moved his way up in the Knesset, ultimately positioning himself, with the help of an agglomeration of parties, to take Netanyahu’s place as prime minister.
How is this new coalitional government expected to operate?
Kontorovich: It’s a narrow unity government that spans the right-wing to the far left. For the first time, it includes Arab parties, in particular a Muslim Brotherhood–based party. There have been Arabs in government from other parties, but this is the first for an explicitly Arab party, let alone an Islamist one.
Lapid and Bennett will rotate the prime ministership.
Bennett does not command a large party, limiting the independent political action he can take. It is going to be hard to imagine how [this unity government] can get big things done given the views of the various parties. From a libertarian perspective, it’s not so bad if a government doesn’t get anything done. But there are two concerns. A paralyzed government may be susceptible to pressure from the United States. We know that the Biden administration will pressure Israel to undermine existing U.S. policy. The Biden administration has talked of opening a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem. Opening a consulate that serves a foreign entity in Jerusalem would undermine America’s commitment. Israel allowing [a Palestinian consulate] to exist would undermine Israel’s claim of sovereignty. Both the Left and Right [in Israel] support Jerusalem being the capital of Israel.
The other concern is that [with a deadlocked Knesset] the other offices (bureaucracies) will run the show even more than they do now, similar to the so-called deep state in the U.S. [These offices are] unlikely to run it in a way that Bennett would approve of.
What can allies of Israel expect from this new government? Is it likely Israel’s stance towards Hamas and Palestine is going to change significantly?
Kontorovich: It’s not likely the government is going to want to change [its stance] significantly. The question is if they can stand up to pressure from the Biden administration.
The foreign ministry is going to be controlled by Lapid. He’s more willing to offer concessions in regard to the Palestinians. On paper, none are in favor of significant concessions of the kind demanded by American progressives, but what happens when Biden turns up the heat?
What early signals are we seeing from Iran, Israel’s regional adversary, in relation to the changing of prime ministers?
Kontorovich: It’s unlikely that there will be clear signals. The recent war with Gaza was orchestrated by Iran as a test of the Knesset and the Biden administration. I think it likely that they will continue testing and looking for signs of weakness. They are likely to pursue confrontation to test the robustness of the government. There is a unified agreement [in the Israeli government] that the Iran deal is dangerous and Iran must be kept from a bomb at all costs.
What supporters of Israel should be seeking is to prevent America from creating a deal that allows Iran the room to develop a nuclear bomb.
What are some past Bennett controversies that may resurface in the media?
Gur: During Operation Grapes of Wrath [a 16-day IDF campaign in 1996 whose aim was to destroy rocket batteries in Lebanon operated by Hezbollah], there transpires this disastrous bombing of the U.N. Compound that kills civilians. That ends the Israeli operation. Bennett is not responsible — no one claims, even those who despise him, [that] he’s responsible for the mistaken airstrike. But he called in airstrikes, and one of them was this terrible error of bombing this building . . . . There was a debate between, not even historians, but pundits, about whether he had gone a little too far into Lebanon or too far with the operation than he was supposed to. [But] there was no record, or reprimand, or any commanding officer who said he violated an order. Bennett denies making any mistakes. He was the infantry under fire on the ground when the airstrike came in. They [his partisan foes] try to attach to [Bennett] things that aren’t relevant.
There is also a claim going around the Internet that Bennett said, “I’ve killed many, many Arabs in my time, and I’m proud of it.” Which was allegedly said by him in a closed-door meeting, something he strenuously denies. When he was in the Knesset and confronted with these claims by Hanin Zoabi, an Arab member of the Knesset a few years ago, [Bennet] said, “[The accusation is] a complete lie, and none of you were there. What I said was that I killed many terrorists in my day, and I’m proud of that, and we should have killed more.” He doesn’t equate terrorists and Arabs . . . there is no footage or audio of him saying otherwise, nothing like that.
Going forward, what should we watch for in American media and politics regarding Israel?
Kontorovich: Since the Obama administration, many progressives disguised their bias and discrimination against Jews by claiming anti-Zionism, not anti-Semitism. “We’re just against the far-right Netanyahu administration,” they’d claim. Netanyahu was the PM for so long it was easy for people to say it’s not Israel [that’s the problem], it’s Netanyahu. But now you have a multi-cultural party, far from a right-wing, religious party. We’ll see if those in Congress who have masked their hostility for Israel as related to Bibi will not be muted even a little a bit. I am quite sure their hostility won’t change, and they will find a new pretext. It’s undeniable that Bibi was not the problem [for these detractors], but the fact of Jewish sovereignty.