In August 1990, Naftali Bennett was inducted into Sayeret Matkal, the Israel Defense Forces’ elite special-operations force. The team with which he went through the grinding process of becoming a full-fledged member of what’s called “the Unit” was sometimes referred to as the “dosim [pejorative term for ‘religious’] squad.” Along with the skullcapped grunt with the American parents were three other observant young men: Among them were Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno, who would be the most senior Israeli officer killed in the Second Lebanon War, and Lt. Col. Matan, who later completed a pilots’ course and commanded a combat aircraft squadron. The “dosim squad” was an unusual sight in the Unit then; indeed, they tried not to hang out together, to avoid having “too many religious guys” in one place, as they put it.
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Bennett subsequently went on to the IDF’s officers training school with another member of Sayeret Matkal, Ofer Ogash. Unusually - certainly for a small unit - the two were assigned to the same team at the school; since then, they’re rarely apart. It was predictable that Bennett would enter politics, Ogash says today, though they did not talk about it.
“I think it was clear, the natural continuation for someone who was a leader in the army and a Zionist,” Ogash says. “I told Naftali he should be careful, make sure he does not get drunk on power. Today he is an anomaly in the landscape, and that’s why I think he is doing so well - with his authentic ‘sabra’ message of the truth that connects us to the Land of Israel and to values.”
After the officers’ school, Bennett became a squad commander in another elite unit, Maglan, which was just taking shape under the command of Tal Russo, currently GOC Southern Command. In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth back then, Bennett said: “We had tremendous successes in Lebanon. We eliminated dozens of terrorists using new and surprising methods, which Hezbollah was unable to cope with.”
During this period, Bennett stopped wearing a skullcap. As a person who served with him explains, this was a result of the difficulty of continuing to pray during such intense activity, “as is expected from a religious person,” even after exhausting nighttime treks and while others use the time to grab a little shut-eye. The soldiers who were with Bennett relate that, in contrast to others in Maglan - most of whom came from kibbutzim and moshavim and identified with the left side of the political map - Bennett was known as the unit’s “right-side marker,” along with a few others.
At the age of 23, the tenacious Bennett became commander of an operational company in Maglan, and pushed for more missions across the northern border. According to one of his soldiers at the time, when he wants something, he gets it.
The words of the Maglan anthem - which Bennett wrote - describe its fighters as “devouring the prey,” while focusing on the mystery and secrecy that shroud their operations.
The day after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, Bennett and his company were supposed to undertake operational activity in Lebanon. He arrived with the skullcap back on his head, explaining that he was taking the step in the face of the antireligious mood which then prevailed.
Five months later, Bennett led his troops into battle in Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. In an interview to a local Haifa weekly, he described how he changed the company’s operational plan, which was to have included a lengthy two-day trek. Without informing his superiors, he decided that he and his 67 soldiers would execute the mission in one night instead of two.
One of the soldiers sprained his ankle and held up the rest of the troops. Bennett gave him two choices: to return to Israel or keep up with everyone at the rapid pace that was set, without complaint. In the end, the forces reached the prearranged point in one night. The injured soldier was flown out by helicopter; he had broken his leg but nevertheless continued to quick march across difficult terrain. Bennett later declared that the soldier’s feat “symbolizes what I demand from myself and from my men.”
Bennett had signed up for three years in the career army, which were to have ended a few months after the Lebanon operation. But about then, he “ran out of steam,” as his friends put it. Some say he was “tired of the army” and that for part of the remaining time he was not in the unit itself ? with the agreement of his superior officers.
After his discharge in 1996, Bennett was assigned to an elite reconnaissance force as a reservist. His friends say that even while he was living in the United States, he arrived for every call-up. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, for example, he made a special effort to get to Israel so he could fight in the casbahs of the West Bank. Four years later, in the Second Lebanon War, as a deputy company commander, he led another mission of his troops in the western sector - under the reservist battalion commander, his army buddy Ogash. After the war, he published a trenchant article in TheMarker, in which he criticized senior officers. The operational plans, he said, were “uninspired and predictable, and there was no true coping with Hezbollah’s deployment.”
Bennett’s comment in a recent interview on Channel 2 - which he later retracted - to the effect that he would ask to be “exempted” from evacuating West Bank outposts and settlements, did not go down well with his friends. “With Naftali, there is no such thing as refusing an order. No such invention,” said one, requesting to remain anonymous.
“I don’t see Naftali, as a soldier and officer, not carrying out the order,” Ogash agrees. “I don’t see that in the lexicon, and it doesn’t make sense. He could, by the way, ask to do something else, on the sidelines, but I don’t see Naftali refusing an order.
“I have seen him quarrel, fight, but in the end he does what needs to be done ? and in the best way. If we are told to evacuate a settlement, we will do it, with tears in our eyes. It’s a bummer, but that’s the way it is. If it were an assignment given to his team, he would do it, with pain.
“I don’t know whether what I am saying will hurt him politically, but it seems to me that at bottom, his constituency consists of those who serve and do the work. They are disciplined people who understand ultimately that, as the injunction goes in Aramaic, ‘dina demalkhuta dina’ - the law of the land is binding.”