Naftali Bennett’s parents, Jim and Myrna, made Aliyah from America in 1967, and settled in the port city of Haifa. Naftali, one of three brothers, was born on March 25, 1972. He served in the elite IDF units of Sayeret Matkal and Maglan as a company commander and still serves in the reserves, at the rank of Major.
I asked Bennett if he would have to give up his American citizenship, should he become Israel’s prime minister.
“I’m not becoming prime minister quite yet,” Bennett said, laughing out loud, “but, obviously, I’ll follow the law, if I’ll need to forfeit it, like Netanyahu has done. I’m not even sure who needs to do it – a minister, a prime minister – I’ll do whatever is needed.”
(For the record, current US policy requires that a dual citizen renounce their American citizenship if they are serving in a “policy level position” in a foreign government. The same holds true on the Israeli side. Law professor Daphne Barak Erez, born to Israeli parents in the U.S., was named Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel in 2012, which required that she give up her foreign citizenship.)
In 1999, Bennett co-founded and was the CEO of “Cyota,” a hi-tech company making anti-fraud software which he sold in 2005 to RSA Security for $145 million. He is likely the richest politician in Israel – well ahead of Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom, who is worth about $40 million.
Perhaps because of his own experience with vigorous American Capitalism, Naftali Benett is in favor of cutting the 40-year-old umbilical cord that still connects Israel to the American Treasury.
“Today, U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy,” Bennett says. “I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly, since I’m not aware of all the aspects of the budget, I don’t want to say ‘let’s just give it up,’ but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago. Israel is much stronger, much wealthier, and we need to be independent.”
When I asked him for his opinion about the nominations of Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense, his response was consistent with the former statement:
“I think it’s none of our business in Israel to intervene in American domestic decisions. President Obama gave us his word most vehemently that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – he said it several times over the past year. He said he has Israel’s back. So I hope and trust that President Obama will follow through on these very powerful commitments.”
In 2006, a wealthy man, Naftali Bennett decided to start giving back. He began serving as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, when the Likud was still in the opposition. He ran Netanyahu’s primary campaign in 2007 and continued to serve him through 2008.
Rumor has it that Bennett and Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, are not on good terms, to the point where Mrs. Netanyahu—who is as influential in her husband’s decision making as a political wife can be—will put her foot down when it comes to taking the former chief of staff on as coalition partner.
Gilat Bennett, Naftali’s wife, told Channel 2 News earlier this year that she could understand Sara Netanyahu, and empathized with her need to have a voice in the prime minister’s career, and with her desire to show that he “belonged to [her], too.”
In 2010, Bennett, in his role as Director General of the Yesha Council (the coalition of all the Jewish settlements east of the “green line”), was in an all out war against Netanyahu over the government imposed settlement construction freeze. The two are not on friendly terms, although Bennett insists on being cordial and even compliments his old boss now and then. Bibi’s comments about Bennett are outright icy.
I cited TV host Nissim Mishal, on whose show Bennett was ambushed quite crudely into stating that he would refuse an order to evict a Jew from his home—which turned into the media brouhaha of the week, earning Bennett ample condemnations from his enemies, and a 2-3 seat bump in the polls. On the same show, Mishal also suggested (“barked” would better describe his tone of questioning) that Netanyahu hated Bennett so much, there was no chance he would include him in is government.