During the summer conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Naftali Bennett went on a verbal offensive, harshly censuring Benjamin Netanyahu. First came criticisms by anonymous "cabinet ministers” of Israel’s restrained approach. Then the far-right-wing leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party blasted the prime minister and the army’s top brass during a cabinet meeting, calling their approach rigid, uncreative and not daring enough. Another minister said at the time that Bennett had fashioned himself as Israel’s new “Mr. Security”; the chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister all rolled into one.
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Bennett’s bluster recalls the language and tone of another young, charismatic, fluent-English-speaking individual from some 20 years ago. That man claimed to understand Israeli politics better than any other politician and the Middle East better than any left-wing leader (including those who built the state, unified Jerusalem and shaped modern-day Israel). He also asserted that he knew America better than Americans themselves. That man is Netanyahu. And he still believes all these things today.
The similarities between Netanyahu and Bennett may explain their complicated relationship. Bennett is Netanyahu’s political rival-partner and onetime bureau chief who is competing for the support of Israel’s rightist camp. It’s possible that Netanyahu first perceived Bennett as a reflection of his younger self.
Unlike for Netanyahu, the upcoming elections are a win-win for Bennett. If he joins a Netanyahu-led coalition as a senior minister, his base will certainly grow at Netanyahu’s expense. If Netanyahu snubs Bennett – his natural partner – and forges a unity government with the Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Bennett will ambush the coalition from the right, billing himself as the true leader of Israel’s right wing and paving the way for his run for premiership in the next elections. That’s exactly what Netanyahu would do if he were in Bennett’s shoes.
Only seven years have passed since Bennett was unceremoniously ousted as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. (Netanyahu was opposition leader at the time.) Bennett was Netanyahu’s confidant, the right-hand man who tried to shield Netanyahu from various influences – including that of his wife, Sara. He admired Netanyahu and studied him closely. Bennett is Netanyahu’s political handiwork, his would-be successor.
Bennett’s personal charm stems from his upbringing, but he learned the rest from Netanyahu. Like his mentor, Bennett walks a fine line between patriotism and extreme nationalism, between persuasive rhetoric and propaganda. He knows how to exploit the media, while accusing it of toeing a left-wing line.
That worked for Netanyahu in the 1990s and it seems to still work today, although Bennett’s approach is a tad more sophisticated. Netanyahu lost the election to Ehud Barak in 1999 because he tried to drive a wedge between the Israeli left and right – and was caught whispering into a rabbi’s ear that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Israelis weren't willing to forgive such a blatant attempt to pit one side against the other back then. Yet Bennett has built his political career on precisely such divisiveness. He recently compared Labor Party candidate Yossi Yonah to Hamas, and several years ago inspired a website that campaigned against journalists, judges and other public figures that were deemed “not patriotic enough.” Not only has Bennett not paid the price that Netanyahu did, the Israeli public of today seems to relish his rhetoric. Netanyahu sowed the seed, but Bennett is the one reaping the fruit, thanks to the Israeli public's rightward shift over the last two decades.
Bennett has followed Netanyahu’s footsteps closely, whether it was serving in an elite military unit or fondly using props during interviews like a piece of a Qassam rocket or an ancient coin (proving the Jewish people’s connection to its homeland). That all comes from Netanyahu’s playbook: He has an ancient coin from a Jerusalem archaeological dig in his office that bears an inscription similar to his last name, and is also meant to symbolize the Jewish people’s eternal connection to its home (and perhaps his own eternal connection to the prime minister’s seat). Netanyahu's impressive bag of props have earned him many a spotlight at his UN speeches, flashing Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s book, aerial photographs of Auschwitz and the now-infamous cartoon diagram of a bomb.
Despite his burning ambition, Bennett's ascent to the prime minister’s office could be hampered by two things: He is more religious and more extreme than Netanyahu. Netanyahu straddles his family’s elitist secularism and some of his voters’ biblical Jewish mission. He wears a kippah, quotes the Bible and says “with the help of God” when he needs to. His youngest son even won the country’s prestigious national Bible quiz. Bennett is the opposite – a religious man who flirts with the secular world (literally, too – his wife used-to be secular). Bennett, who once headed the Yesha Council of settlements, lives in a luxury home in the central town of Ra’anana. Yet Bennett wears a kippah and keeps Shabbat, and members of his party don’t hide their ultra-conservative views (including their homophobic ideas).
It’s clear, though, that Bennett and his national-religious party won’t be partners forever. He may leave the party that elevated him to his current strength after the upcoming elections, or he may try to fundamentally change its makeup, which has become more of a burden to him than an asset. Bennett wants to create another Likud, an “all-Israeli” party. But that may not be so easy. When he recently tried to add a former soccer star to the roster, his party revolted. Bennett backed down and the soccer star bolted – which is exactly what Bennett may do soon enough.
Neither Netanyahu nor Bennett believes in what they call the left wing’s “fake peace.” That’s their secret weapon with voters. They don’t naively believe peace will solve all of Israel’s problems, yet they will pursue negotiations as long as they go nowhere. Netanyahu may have said he supports a two-state solution – which allowed Bennett to claim he is the only Israeli politician opposed to creating a Palestinian state – but really there’s little difference between them. Both would accept Palestinian autonomy and territorial concessions. After all, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to restart peace talks, Bennett sat in the government that voted in favor of releasing Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands. Later, when he criticized the move, Netanyahu told the world that Bennett agreed to the prisoner release so long as settlement construction continued.
A former senior minister told us that Bennett has “daddy issues;” that, at the end of the day, he just wants Netanyahu’s approval and admiration. That may be true, but it’s more likely that he has an Oedipal Complex – he wants to succeed and be the next Netanyahu. Netanyahu understands that, which is why he wanted to shut Bennett out of his coalition after the last elections. That's why he belittles and tries to discredit Bennett at every turn. But the truth is he recognizes Bennett’s potential, energy and drive. He understands that, ultimately, he’s competing against himself, against Bibi 2.0.