Deconstructing Naftali Bennett: The Netanyahu Years

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In April 2006, Benjamin Netanyahu's political career seemed to be sliding toward its end. A few weeks earlier, in the election to the 17th Knesset, his Likud party had won just 12 seats - a calamitous plunge from the 38 it garnered under Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu was the leader of a weak, battered opposition. His rivals within Likud started to snipe at him, his confidants deserted him and his bureau fell apart.

About this time, a Likud activist, Bilha Nissenson, introduced Netanyahu to Ayelet Shaked, a high-tech engineer and fellow activist. Netanyahu recruited Shaked as his bureau chief. Extensive public criticism of the way then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government handled the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 breathed new life into Netanyahu as leader of the opposition.

After the war, Netanyahu asked Shaked to find him a chief of staff who would spearhead a drive to topple the Olmert government. Shaked sought recommendations from a close friend, Erez Eshel. A West Bank settler, Eshel had been one of the founders of Hashomer Hahadash (the New Guardian ), which targeted Arab minorities in the Negev and Galilee as a threat to Jewish farmers. He also spoke out in favor of the "hilltop youth" in the West Bank, and called on soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlers.

Eshel suggested Naftali Bennett as Netanyahu's chief of staff. He and Bennett had served together in the army's elite Sayeret Maglan unit. Shaked met with Bennett at a cafe in Ra'anana, where he lives. Bennett, already a Likud member, told her he had been inspired as a youngster by "Michtavei Yoni" (the posthumously published letters of Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu, the brother of Benjamin, who was killed in the 1976 Entebbe operation ). He added that he had high regard for Netanyahu and had returned from reserve duty in the Second Lebanon War feeling the country was in crisis.

Following the meeting, Shaked called Netanyahu to report that she had found a candidate with the same mindset. But the people Netanyahu sent to check on Bennett came back with a negative impression. "Instead of persuading me that he was suitable for Bibi, he kept asking whether Bibi was worthy to have him work for him," a Netanyahu confidant who met Bennett at that time said.

Netanyahu was impressed by Bennett's CV: officer in an elite unit, "religious-lite" and a high-tech entrepreneur who made millions in a successful exit. When they met, he was further captivated by the young man's articulateness, fluent English and right-wing ideology. "Netanyahu has a weakness for former members of elite units and even more for millionaires," one Netanyahu adviser said then. "Bennett charmed him upon first impression."

Two opposite narratives exist about what ensued in the 16 months that followed. While researching this article, Haaretz spoke with five sources who worked in Netanyahu's bureau then or were involved in unfolding events. Some of them like Bennett; others are his rivals. All agree about one thing: Within days of Bennett's arrival, two camps formed. One consisted of the veteran political advisers - Natan Eshel, Oren Helman and Ofir Akunis; the other of Bennett and Shaked.

"Bennett very quickly found himself at odds with the veteran advisers," says a source who worked with Netanyahu at the time. "They didn't like him. They thought he was overbearing and out of his depth."

Bennett's confidants did not deny there were clashes with the veteran staff. "There was chaos in the bureau and Naftali brought order," they noted. "Within a short time the bureau was organized and everything ran like clockwork." Netanyahu gave Bennett almost total freedom.

Bennett fired political adviser Helman (now a senior official in the Israel Electric Corporation ). He also tried to downgrade the status of media adviser Akunis (now a Likud MK ), whom he could not fire. And he upgraded political adviser Shalom Shlomo, who is now an adviser to Bennett in his Habayit Hayehudi party.

Sources from Netanyahu's bureau at the time relate that, in his first weeks on the job, Bennett avidly preached his new media theory to the advisers and urged the creation of a massive Internet presence for Likud. However, these sources say, Bennett neglected grass-roots Likud activity. A few weeks later, they add, he realized his mistake, changed direction and set up a series of whistle-stop tours for Netanyahu around the country. But that program, involving four or five gatherings a day, turned out to be unrealistic in terms of Netanyahu's style.

"Operationally, Netanyahu was very enthusiastic about Bennett at the beginning," says a close Netanyahu adviser from that period. "But after the honeymoon, real life set in. Netanyahu rejected some of Bennett's ideas as being undeveloped and reflecting a lack of political experience. And the ideas he did accept did not produce the desired results."

The major failure was the campaign to unseat Prime Minister Olmert following the publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report on the events of the Second Lebanon War. Bennett decided to push a reservists' anti-Olmert protest in May 2007 and add to it bereaved families and other groups, such as Tafnit, a movement headed by Netanyahu confidant Uzi Dayan. He even recruited various left-wing organizations.

Bennett did not take part in meetings of the team leading the drive to topple Olmert. (However, both he - as Netanyahu's chief of staff - and the Likud movement were massively involved in propelling and financing the anti-Olmert movement.) Bennett's representative in the meetings was another Netanyahu confidant, Yoav Horowitz (now on the board of directors of the Israel Broadcasting Authority). In addition, an operational document drawn up by Uzi Dayan, which was made available to Haaretz, showed that at least two more of Bennett's close friends, Erez Eshel and Yakir Segev, played key roles in the movement to topple Olmert.

The reservists' protest reached its peak at a demonstration held at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square in May 2007, attended by tens of thousands. However, the campaign did not achieve its purpose of ousting Olmert; sources in Netanyahu's milieu claimed he was disappointed at its results and the way it was managed. These sources say the failed campaign was one of the reasons for the termination of Bennett's employment.

"Instead of letting the anti-Olmert protest movement grow naturally and not by party political means, Bennett became too personally involved and linked Netanyahu with it too blatantly," a source in Likud said.

"After being nonpartisan throughout the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu suddenly found himself cast as someone who was trying to subvert the government, and exploiting the reservists and bereaved families for political gain."

According to Likud sources, after this failure, Bennett tried to persuade Netanyahu to join an Olmert-led national unity government. He put out a few feelers to Olmert's Kadima party, but that effort, too, fell flat.

Enter the First Lady

It's now well known that the friction with Bennett and Shaked did not stop with the veteran advisers, but also reached the First Lady, Sara Netanyahu. At the time she was deeply involved in her husband's activities - his schedule, in particular. According to sources previously employed in Netanyahu's bureau, Bennett and Shaked objected to Sara's involvement and viewed her as a potential obstacle to their boss' return to office. Accordingly, they tried to deny her access to his schedule.

Bennett confidants say that Sara did not like Bennett because he did not fulfill her wishes and made it clear he was working for her husband. "He was very focused and businesslike, and in retrospect that may have been a mistake," the sources say.

However, Bennett's detractors say he found himself in hot water because he completely ignored the fact that Netanyahu also has a personal family life.

“Bennett tried to change long-standing arrangements and refused to acknowledge reality,” said a person who worked with Netanyahu at the time. “If you want to be the chief of staff of a politician, you have to understand that his family is part of the package. Bennett did not get it.”

One of the most controversial issues here is the specific background of Bennett’s departure from Netanyahu’s bureau: He tried to present the move as his own initiative ‏(an approach he would also take when departing as head of the Yesha Council of settlements a few years later‏). In all public references to the issue, he stated that he left Netanyahu’s bureau with no bad blood between them.

The reality is slightly different. Bennett left after a lengthy period of tension with the boss. At least four sources who worked with Netanyahu at the time noted that he was not satisfied with Bennett’s performance, and felt that he “was not delivering the goods.”

Netanyahu’s confidants maintain that it was Bennett who put out the story that he left because of his poor relations with Sara Netanyahu. According to these sources, “Sara didn’t like him, but she didn’t fire him. That was an excuse that was invented in retrospect.” They add that after leaving the bureau Bennett was behind various leaks against Netanyahu, but that nowadays he tells everyone that relations between them were excellent.

Members of Bennett’s close circle deny that he ever leaked anything against either Benjamin or Sara Netanyahu after leaving the bureau. They claim it was the advisers he fired or downgraded who caused the trouble between them, and also spread the stories about a confrontation with Sara Netanyahu. “They wanted to settle accounts with him, so they leaked the tale that he left because of Sara,” says a Bennett confidant.

Some of the people who worked with Netanyahu in that period − a few are still close to him or remain active in Likud − see the Bennett episode as part of a pattern of problematic, unstable behavior. They describe Bennett as “a zigzagger and an opportunist.” They point out that he has never held any post for long but has used each job as a springboard for the next. As evidence, they note that he stayed with Netanyahu for less than a year and a half, and was chairman of the Yesha Council for only a year and eight months.

Bennett’s circle is making every effort to display a conciliatory attitude toward Netanyahu. Bennett himself emphasizes in interviews that he is fond of Netanyahu and holds him in high regard. His confidants add that he is not looking for revenge but cooperation with Netanyahu in the next government. The residues of the past can be put behind them, they say, and point to the Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman union as an example.

“For years the two were at loggerheads and never met, but now they are on the same joint ticket,” Bennett’s confidants said. “The same thing can happen between Bibi and Naftali.”

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski

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