From tech millionaire to ultra-nationalist prime minister of Israel

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Naftali Bennett, who was sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister on Sunday, embodies many of the contradictions that define the 73-year-old nation.

He is a religious Jew who made millions in the high-tech sector, mostly secular; a champion of the settlement movement who lives in a Tel Aviv suburb and a former ally of Benjamin Netanyahu who has partnered with centrist and left-wing parties to end his 12-year rule.

His ultranationalist Yamina party won just seven seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March elections, the fourth such vote in two years. But by refusing to compromise with Netanyahu or his opponents, Bennett positioned himself as a kingmaker. Even after a member of his religious nationalist party left him to protest the new coalition agreement, he ended up with the crown.

Here’s a look at Israel’s new leader:

An ultranationalist with a moderate coalition

Bennett has long positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu. But it will be severely limited by its difficult coalition, which has only a narrow majority in parliament and includes parties of the right, left and center.

He opposes Palestinian independence and strongly supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians and much of the international community see as a major obstacle to peace.

Bennett fiercely criticized Netanyahu after the prime minister agreed to delay settlement construction under pressure from President Barack Obama, who tried and failed to revive the peace process early in his first term.

He briefly served as head of the West Bank settler council, Yesha, before entering the Knesset in 2013. Bennett later served as cabinet minister for diaspora affairs, education and defense in several Netanyahu-led governments.

“He is a right-wing leader, a hard-line on security, but at the same time very pragmatic,” said Yohanan Plesner, director of the Israel Institute of Democracy, who has known Bennett for decades and has served with him in the military.

He hopes Bennett will network with other factions to find a “common denominator” as he seeks support and legitimacy as a national leader.

Rivalry with Netanyahu

The 49-year-old father of four shares Netanyahu’s aggressive approach to the Middle East conflict, but the two have had strained relationships over the years.

Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years, but they parted ways after a mysterious dispute that Israeli media linked with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who wields great influence over her husband’s inner circle.

Bennett campaigned as a stalwart of the right before the March elections and signed a pledge on national television saying he would never allow Yair Lapid, a centrist and Netanyahu’s main rival, to become prime minister.

But when it became clear that Netanyahu could not form a ruling coalition, that is exactly what Bennett did, agreeing to serve as prime minister for two years before handing over power to Lapid, the architect of the new coalition.

Netanyahu supporters have called Bennett a traitor, saying he defrauded voters. Bennett has defended his decision as a pragmatic measure aimed at unifying the country and avoiding a fifth electoral round.

A generational change

Bennett, a modern Orthodox Jew, will be Israel’s first prime minister to regularly wear a kippa, the headgear worn by observant Jews. He lives in the exclusive Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana, rather than the settlements he defends.

Bennett began life with his American-born parents in Haifa, then bounced with his family between North America and Israel, military service, law school, and the private sector. Throughout, he has healed a person who is at once modern, religious, and nationalistic.

After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal command unit, Bennett went to law school at the Hebrew University. In 1999, he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company that was sold to US-based RSA Security in 2005 for $ 145 million.

Bennett has said that the bitter experience of Israel’s 2006 war against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah led him into politics. The month-long period ended inconclusively, and Israel’s military and political leadership at the time was widely criticized for ruining the campaign.

Bennett represents a third generation of Israeli leaders, after the founders of the state and Netanyahu’s generation, who came of age during the country’s tense early years, marked by repeated wars with the Arab states.

“It’s Israel 3.0,” Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote in a recent profile of Bennett.

“A Jewish nationalist but not really dogmatic. A little religious, but certainly not devout. A military man who prefers the comforts of civilian urban life and a high-tech businessman who does not seek to earn more millions. A supporter of the Greater Land of Israel but not a settler. And he may not be a lifelong politician either. “

(AP)