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The Road to Knesset: The rise of Naftali Bennett

Israel's parliament voted 60-59 in favour of a new government on Sunday. Ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett will head the new cabinet.

June 15, 2021 at 4:24 pm

Israel’s longest serving prime minister has fallen, after 12 years at the helm of Israel’s government and Naftali Bennett is the man crowning the end of the Benjamin Netanyahu era.

The right-wing ultra-nationalist and former Netanyahu ally, once described as his protege, emerged as the kingmaker in Israel’s March 2021 parliamentary election – the fourth inconclusive election in two years in which no faction has been able to secure a governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

His Yamina Party secured just a handful of seats in the Knesset, but they were enough to give him the power to unseat Netanyahu.

Despite serving in five ministerial positions in several Netanyahu governments including as his Chief of Staff in 2006, Bennett decided to join the anti-Netanyahu camp.

He joined forces with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party, which finished second to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. The two politicians, despite their ideological differences, will be sharing a rotating premiership – starting with Bennett – in a unity government made up of eight opposition parties which have little in common, except the desire to oust Netanyahu and bring an end to a political stalemate that could risk a fifth election.

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Netanyahu accused Bennett of ‘the fraud of the century’ and of betraying right-wing voters by entering into a power sharing agreement with ‘the left’, citing public campaign promises Bennett made not to join a government with Lapid. The long-time leader called on all right-wing lawmakers to stop the coalition, which he described as ‘dangerous’.

The eight-faction coalition government spans the full spectrum of Israeli politics. It includes former right-wing Netanyahu allies, centrists and liberals, as well as – for the first time – an Arab Islamist bloc led by Mansour Abbas, a pragmatist who hopes that by sitting in government he will be able to freeze home demolitions affecting Israel’s Palestinian population and help bolster their position in Israeli society.

Other Arab parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel that make up 20 per cent of the population within the Green Line, however, said they would oppose a government led by Bennett, a man who not only openly rejects the internationally-supported two-state solution but also opposes the very idea of a Palestinian state in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“I won’t allow a Palestinian State to be established west of Jordan,” Bennett told TRT World in an interview, “because that would be tantamount to the end of Israel.”

A former Israeli soldier and tech entrepreneur, Bennett has described himself as more right-wing than Netanyahu. In a cabinet meeting in 2013, he bragged: “If we capture terrorists we need to just kill them… I’ve already killed a lot of Arabs in my life, and there is no problem with that.”

He also previously described fellow Member of the Knesset Mansour Abbas as a ‘terror supporter’, for which he has now apologised.

In Bennett’s eyes, the Holy Land belongs to the Jewish people. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2017, he said: “This has been our land for roughly 3,800 years before Islam came to the world.”

“If you want to say that land does not belong to us I suggest you go change the Bible first, come back and then show me a new Bible that says the land of Israel doesn’t belong to Jews.”

Bennett is a staunch supporter of the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law. He actively campaigns for settlement expansion, and was once the head of the Yesha Council, a political lobby group for Jewish settlers.

He is also a proponent of the annexation of the West Bank, to which he refers only by the biblical name Judea and Samaria, and does not recognise it as occupied territory.

According to Bennett, the Jewish people have a religious claim to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and a right to settle there, whereas Palestinian refugees forced out from their homes in 1948 to make way for the establishment of the State of Israel constitute a ‘demographic threat’ and could never be allowed to move back, not to Israel nor to the occupied West Bank, recognised by the international community as Palestinian land.

“My idea would be to form an autonomy where the Palestinians govern themselves,” he told the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen in an interview in 2018, “all but two things: They do not control security, and they cannot bring in millions of Palestinian descendents – from Syria, Lebanon – into Judea and Samaria and then create a demographic disaster here.”

During Israel’s 11-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip in May 2021, Bennett was criticised for fake news after using an image of a hospital in Pakistan and referring to it as Gaza’s main hospital. He described it as the headquarters of Hamas fighters whom he blamed for the deaths of Palestinian civilians and children killed in Israeli air strikes.

Despite facing several corruption charges, Netanyahu has managed to survive 3 deadlocked elections and formed a rare national unity government with rival Benny Gantz in 2020, earning him a fifth term in office. But his hold on power has now come to an end.

Bennett’s ascent to power in Israel means the country avoids yet another election, but it will undoubtedly mean a setback for Palestinians who continue to live under Israel’s ongoing military occupation and system of apartheid as described by both Human Rights Watch and Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, and for their aspirations for freedom.

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