It’s a Tuesday night three weeks before election day, and Naftali Bennett, the head of one of Israel’s oldest religious parties, is speaking in English to 1,000 mostly young, secular Israelis. For Bennett, 42, an ambitious, talented, American-style politician seeking to catapult his Jewish Home faction to third place among Israel’s parties, this isn’t all that surprising.
The contest is widely seen here as a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister and a lightning rod for criticism across the political spectrum. The yard signs and billboards of the opposition declare “It’s us or him,” and an American-style PAC, reportedly funded, indirectly and in part, by the U.S. State Department, has launched ubiquitous anti-“Bibi” ads urging Israelis to “Just change.” Netanyahu’s highly controversial address to Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat only added fuel to the fire.
But while the “Bibi-or-else” theme has dominated the electoral conversation here and abroad, most outside observers have largely ignored the role of Bennett as a potential kingmaker. Polls show the leading parties, Netanyahu’s center-right Likud and the center-left Zionist Union, jockeying for anywhere between 22 and 27 seats each (out of a total of 120), leaving many seats to be filled by coalition partners—including Jewish Home, if Likud comes in first in the balloting.
The son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett entered politics only after a successful career as a high-tech entrepreneur; he sold off his banking security software company for $145 million in 2005 after spending several years in Manhattan with his wife, Gilat, who apprenticed as a pastry chef at some of the Upper East Side’s tonier joints.
Bennett brings an American sensibility to the rigors of Israeli politics. He smiles a lot. He’s mastered social media. He’s run funny, clever commercials. He’s as comfortable speaking unaccented English on CNN as he is fluent Hebrew to local media. He smoothly parries tough questions and defuses tense situations with humor, as he did the evening I heard him speak in Tel Aviv when a dozen gay-rights activists unfurled rainbow flags during his remarks. And he’s even adopted an old Mitt Romney slogan—“No Apologies”—as his own.
He has also striven to widen his party’s reach beyond its core of “national-religious” voters, a relatively small but growing slice of the Israeli electorate. When he took the helm in 2012, Jewish Home held 3 seats in the Knesset—an “irrelevant relic,” in Bennett’s telling. The following year, the party won 12 seats, and some polls have predicted a total of 18 this cycle. But Bennett’s efforts to grow Jewish Home’s appeal have at times roiled its traditional base.
He has vigorously sought to steer the national conversation toward domestic politics and thus beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, of which the country has wearied. As minister of economic affairs for the past two years, he’s applied his experience in the private sector to good effect, fostering investment from and forging joint ventures with other countries (China, most prominently), enticing Western companies to open R&D centers in Israel, ending price-fixing by the dairy and cement cartels, scrapping outdated regulations, and helping to lower the overall cost of most food products—a potent electoral issue.
Bennett has also enhanced job opportunities among certain troubled sectors of the economy. “We opened dozens of employment centers for Arab women,” he noted at the Tel Aviv event, offering “a one-stop shop” for these new workers and funding 30 percent of their salaries for three years. During his tenure, he says, the workforce participation rate among Arab women jumped 50 percent.
But try as he might to focus on economic gains, the everlasting conflict makes its presence known, again and again. And here, Bennett and his party embrace a maximalist territorial position, calling for the annexation of all Jewish areas in the disputed West Bank. This “stability plan,” Bennett says, would incorporate 50,000 Palestinians into Israel proper while granting “autonomy on steroids” to the remainder, who would live in contiguous territory encircled by Israel.
While Zionist Union proudly supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and Likud does so ambivalently, Bennett abhors the concept. “We have a problem in the Arab world,” Bennett told the AP in a February interview, “which is getting more and more radical. Throwing [the Palestinians] pieces of Israel’s land and hoping that will satisfy the radical Islamist beast won’t do it.”