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Analysis

BICOM Briefing | Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the National Religious Camp

On Sunday 13 June, for the first time in 12 years, a majority of Israeli MKs expressed confidence in a government not headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett will lead the new government for the first two years, and then will be replaced by Yesh Atid leader and current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Bennett thus became the first religiously observant prime minister of Israel.

The Bennett-Lapid government is particularly diverse and includes eight parties across the possible political spectrum – two left wing parties (Labour and Meretz) two centrist parties (Yesh Atid and Blue and White), three right-wing parties (Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu). Moreover, in an historic first, an Arab party, the Islamic United Arab List (UAL) joined the coalition, and its leader Mansour Abbas has become a deputy minister. The government also includes the highest number of women in the cabinet (9) as well as an openly gay minister (Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz) and an Arab minister (Meretz MK Issawi Frej, responsible for regional cooperation.) [For more on the government see BICOM Briefing | The Bennett-Lapid ‘Change Government’]

Who is Naftali Bennett? Background and politics

Bennett grew up in a liberal and cosmopolitan household, living in the US for long periods as a child and later as high-tech entrepreneur. After spending six years in the IDF and serving in the prestigious elite Sayeret Matkal unit (following his childhood hero Yoni Netanyahu, Benjamin’s older brother), he spent three years as a law and business student at Hebrew University and made a fortune in his first role as CEO of Cyota, which eventually sold for $145m to RSA Security in 2005.

Bennett entered politics at the age of 35, as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. He eventually found his political home in the National-Religious Jewish Home Party in 2011 leading the party to 12 seats in the 2013 election and subsequently forming an electoral pact with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to enter Netanyahu’s government. Feeling the religious Jewish Home was too parochial, overly influenced by rabbinic leaders, and unable to appeal to a wider, non-religious audience, Bennett formed the ‘New Right’ in December 2018 alongside his long-time political ally, secular right winger Ayelet Shaked. His rise to the top of Israel’s political establishment has been unexpected, especially given that in the April 2019 Israeli election – the first of four over the last two years – the New Right party failed to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 per cent, leaving him temporarily out of politics.

Bennett has historically held territorially hawkish positions but understands coalitional and international constraints that oppose such moves. Bennett has promoted annexing Area C, giving the Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship and for Palestinians living Areas A and B to govern themselves, a plan he calls ‘autonomy on steroids’. At the same time, the Prime Minister is aware that several members of his diverse coalition oppose such moves, as does the Biden administration, with whom Bennett would like to maintain good relations. Moreover, the Abraham Accords reportedly contain a component which postpones any potential Israeli annexationist moves for several years. [For more on Bennett’s views on the Palestinian issue and his Stability Plan, see this 2017 Fathom Interview].

Bennett has also consulted with liberal Orthodox thinker Micah Goodman who has set out a plan to ‘shrink’ rather than resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [For more on Goodman’s ideas, see this Fathom Forum event with the author]. Goodman advocates in his book taking an incremental approach in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the fact that no permanent status arrangement is likely to be within reach for the foreseeable future, and he urges Israel to take several measures that would scale back the conflict.  These ideas were reflected in Bennett’s inaugural speech in the Knesset when he said, “The Palestinians must take responsibility for their actions and to understand that violence will be met with a firm response. However, security calm will lead to economic initiatives, which will lead to reducing friction and the conflict.” This perspective will be helpful in aligning the new government with the Biden administration.

Bennett is generally liberal on social issues. As leader of the Yesha Council, he attended the 2011 social protests in Tel Aviv, with the aim of broadening the settlers’ engagement with other parts of Israeli society (a move controversial within the Council and which led to him leaving his position). Bennett has consistently expressed openness to engaging with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and sees them as fully Jewish (unlike more conservative members of the National Religious camp). He is supportive of LGBT rights, telling the community he ‘loved them very much,’ and adding that he was “about respecting each individual – live and let live” and “every legal and civil right afforded to a straight person should be equally afforded to those in the LGBTQ community”. A former leader of the Yesha Council (that advocates for West Bank settlements), Bennett lives with his secular wife in the in the affluent city of Raanana in Central Israel.

Bennett within the Israeli National Religious camp

The national religious camp in Israel is broadly right-wing territorially but includes a wide spectrum of opinion on social issues, the relationship between religion and state, and the approach to interacting with other sectors in Israeli society.

Similar to ultra-Orthodox groups, the conservative wing of the National Religious Camp prefers to minimise interaction with secular Israelis and mobilise to secure their own sectoral interests. They tend to live in religiously homogeneous neighbourhoods and settlements, and vote for religious parties, such as Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist partythat are guided by senior rabbis.

By contrast, those in the more ‘moderate’ wing of the National Religious camp consider secular Israelis as strategic partners with many common interests and adopt a more liberal approach to recognising all strands of Judaism. Despite strong right-wing credentials on the Palestinian issue, Bennett is part of this group (as are other religious Ministers Ze’ev Elkin of New Hope and Matan Kahana of Yamina). In 2019, Bennett defined his personal religious practice as “Israeli-Jewish,” explaining: “Israeli-Jewish can mean religious, traditional, secular, Haredi-nationalist or Haredi … Israeli Jews don’t judge each other based on how strictly they observe mitzvot. Israeli Jews love and accept every Jew.”

Another, smaller group within the National Religious Camp is less supportive of the settlement enterprise and more openly liberal on social issues. This group includes two ministers in the current government, Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) and Chilli Tropper (Blue and White). Stern, Minister of Intelligence, joined politics after a long career in the IDF in which he was a major general and head of human resources. He has called for greater transportation on the Sabbath, and for Israel to adopt liberal approaches to conversion (rather than the current monopoly held by the Chief Rabbinate). Tropper, a former member of the Labour party, has long been involved in social activist circles, working with youth in the country’s periphery.

The government’s coalition agreements include a string of changes heavily influenced by the more moderate and liberal strands of the National Religious camp, which are also supported by the secular parties. These include a pledge to pass legislation for the induction of ultra-Orthodox men into military or civilian service and removing the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over restaurant’s kosher certification.  There are also suggestions that the state could facilitating civil unions for the first time and allow some public transportation during the Sabbath. While these are controversial in some quarters, the absence of ultra-Orthodox parties and Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party from the coalition means the current ultra-Orthodox control over Judaism inside Israel will likely be challenged.


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