Understanding Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett

Fiercely Zionist yet pragmatic. Bold but not charismatic. The independent leader of a disparate coalition.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on about Israel’s new prime minister is that he is different. Naftali Bennett is the first religiously observant person to fill that office, though his religious affiliation is the subject of intense debate. Unlike his predecessors, he did not come up through the traditional ranks of a political party apparatus. Instead, he created and then left two small political parties behind him, as though to emphasize that party is a term of convenience rather than a moral obligation. And although he retired from the Israeli army with the rank of major, Bennett was never its head—unlike many of Israel’s leaders before him. His independence is further emphasized by the fact that he is a self-made multimillionaire, having sold two start-up tech companies for more than $100 million each.

Bennett’s independent wealth should make him less susceptible to bribery than others in his office have been. Past prime ministers have been imprisoned for corruption; Bennett’s predecessor and main political rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, is currently facing charges that could result in him going to jail. The fact that Bennett has left a successful career to serve in office speaks well of his commitment to his country and his people.

Although born in Israel, Bennett spent many of his early years in the United States, where he acquired excellent language skills—an important quality for the international framework in which a leader is expected to interact with others. His US-born parents emigrated to Israel in 1967 and became religiously observant, emphasizing their Zionism as a cardinal belief. Their son has embraced this Zionist ideology so thoroughly that a recent article in the liberal Haaretz declared that he no longer sees politics as pitting left against right but rather Zionist against anti-Zionist. His religious beliefs are in some ways more fluid and flexible than his Zionism, and he tends to prefer a more pragmatic stance to a rigidly ideological one.