Deconstructing Naftali Bennett

Haaretz takes a look at the meteoric rise of the politician, the soldier and the high-tech whiz.

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Within an amazingly short period, Naftali Bennett, 40, the son of American immigrants, who served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau chief when the latter was opposition head, has become the leader of Israel’s third most-powerful political party.

Netanyahu has lost his cool, and like a political rookie, is attacking Bennett, turning him into his biggest rival in this election campaign. In the polls, the trend experienced by Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party is diametrically opposed to that of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket.

Get to know the man behind the hype, and the party behind the man

And Bennett is not only eating away at the electoral clout of his major rival ‏(and future partner‏): He’s also whittling away at the prospects of the centrist parties. The heads of the major parties are being driven mad by the secular appeal of Bennett, who sold his start-up company for a cool $145 million some years back and is now enchanting many voters despite his hawkish declarations, his past role as head of the Yesha Council and his more radical party members.

After Tuesday, we will see how badly those parties have been hurt, but it will be a while before we see if Bennett gets the cabinet post of his dreams - or whether Netanyahu will leave him to cool his heels and repent for all the damage he has done.

The Netanyahu years

Naftali Bennett worked as Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff for about 18 months in 2006, and quickly found himself at odds with the veteran advisers in Netanyahu's office. Between Bennett's supporters and detractors, many versions exist of what exactly took place during that time period and what led to his departure – but as everyone now knows, friction with the First Lady, Sara Netanyahu, was at the forefront of that move.

Growing up to be a leader

Bennett, born in Haifa in 1972 to American immigrants, was described by people who grew up with him as a born leader. As an adolescent he dreamed of being a musician and he went on to name his firstborn son after Yonatan Netanyahu, the elder brother of the prime minister, who was killed while leading the rescue mission at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. His family, who were considered left-wingers in Berkeley, made the shift rightward upon coming to Israel.

The IDF fighter

In 1990, Bennett was inducted into Sayeret Matkal, the IDF's elite special-operations force. Bennett subsequently went on to the IDF’s officers training school, and after the officers’ school, Bennett became a squad commander in another elite unit, Maglan. During this period, Bennett stopped wearing a skullcap, apparently as a result of the difficulty of continuing to pray during such intense activity. The day after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, however, 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.

The start-up years

Naftali Bennett's high-tech adventures started in 1999, when along with several friends, he created the start-up Cyota, the company that would eventually earn Bennett millions of dollars. In December 2005, Bennett and his partners sold Cyota, which by then had 140 employees, for $145 million to the American company RSA Security. “His dream was to reenact in politics what he did at Cyota − which was a team working in unison toward a certain goal, without internal politics, for mutual success,” a friend says.

The settlers' hope

Naftali Bennett took up the position of director general of the Yesha Council of settlements in January 2010. At the onset, Bennett set forth a plan aimed at bringing the settlers into a new, far more sophisticated era - fewer buses and demonstrations, more mind gimmicks. Many Yesha Council officials, however, were not happy with Bennett - they were angry at his attempts to personally attack Netanyahu and his constant push to force the council to deal with other issues other than the settlements. He was eventually dismissed. Last February, Bennett published what he called a "calming plan," which talks about annexing Israel-controlled Area C, where most of the settlements are situated; granting citizenship to Palestinians residing there; transferring the Gaza Strip to Egypt; and investing massively in infrastructure, so as to improve the material conditions under which Palestinians live.

Naftali BennettCredit: Alon Ron

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