Who is Naftali Bennett & why is his party climbing so fast in the Israeli polls?

Naftali Bennett, rising star in Israeli politics.

Naftali Bennett, rising star in Israeli politics.

UPDATED: Few Americans have heard of Naftali Bennett. But the 40-year old former software entrepreneur and his right-wing political party, The Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi), is taking the Israeli political scene by storm

Bennett’s party currently has three seats in the Knesset (parliament). But his support is surging. Some recent polls suggest Bennett and his team could end up with 12 or 13 seats after the January 22nd elections. Some polls, however, suggest Bennett’s team could win as many as 15 to 18 seats, emerging as Israel’s third — or possibly second — largest party.

Bennett is married to a secular Jewish woman. He’s the father of four young children, all under the age of eight. Religious. Zionist. Served in one of Israel’s most elite army combat units, Sayeret Matkal. Went into business. Created a software company that he sold for millions. Served from 2006 to 2008 as Netanyahu’s chief of staff before breaking off and charting his own political path, to the right of his mentor. Served as the director of the Yesha Council, the governing body of the Jewish settler movement on the West Bank, from 2010 to 2012. Says Netanyahu is too willing to compromise with the Palestinians, too willing to create a Palestinian state, which Bennett vigorously opposes. “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state,” he says of the Palestinians. Last year, Bennett — and his top deputy, Ayalet Shaked, 36 (described as “the new secular face of religious Zionism” by the Times of Israel) — unveiled a plan to unilaterally annex much of Judea and Samaria (aka, the West Bank), make it officially part of the State of Israel, and give the Palestinians autonomy in their daily affairs.

Netanyahu in December directed sharp criticism at Bennett, whose recent comments suggest IDF soldiers shouldn’t obey if orders are ever given to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “Anyone who refuses [a command] won’t be a minister in my government,” Netanyahu said in his first television interview since the launch of the Likud election campaign. “This is a serious issue. Israel’s existence is based on its army. I was quite surprised to hear that Naftali Bennett supports insubordination as a personal example. I heard Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, who was once the IDF chief of general staff, say the right thing: ‘Israel’s existence is based on the IDF. The existence of the IDF is based on following orders. There can be no insubordination. Not from this side or from that side.’ No one who supports insubordination will serve in my government.”

Bennett quickly backed off and clarified that he — and all IDF officers and soldiers — must obey civilian government orders. But the dust up didn’t seem to hurt him. His name ID soared in Israel, and an analysis by the Times of Israel shows that the more Israelis learn about Bennett’s personal story and style and political views, the more they like him.

The Western media is beginning to pay attention. The New York Times ran a profile of Bennett in December headlined, “Dynamic Former Netanyahu Aide Shifts Israeli Campaign Rightward.” Last week, the UK Guardian ran an in-depth interview with him.

A lengthy profile in The New Yorker this month is worth reading. Manhattan liberal elites — along with Tel Aviv liberal elites — are stunned by Bennett’s rise. Author David Remnick argues that the Israeli electorate is moving sharply to the right because they are exhausted by the conflict with the Arabs; disillusioned with the peace process; increasingly convinced the Palestinians will never make peace; anxious about the instability and anti-Israeli hostility in surrounding nations like Syria, Egypt and Jordan; worried about the Iranian nuclear threat; and convinced that the Israeli left has no fresh ideas and no dynamic leaders. Is he right? I’m not a big fan of left-wing publications like The New Yorker, and I certainly don’t typically see eye to eye with Remnick, but I found it interesting to view Israel through their eyes.