Israel's Bennett: right-winger, likely kingmaker

Israel's Naftali Bennett, leader of the 'New Right' party, waves as he leaves a polling station in the city of Raanana after voting in Israel's election on Tuesday
Israel's Naftali Bennett, leader of the 'New Right' party, waves as he leaves a polling station in the city of Raanana after voting in Israel's election on Tuesday GIL COHEN-MAGEN AFP
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's Naftali Bennett, a multi-millionaire former high-tech entrepreneur who made a name in politics with hardline religious-nationalist rhetoric, emerged as a likely kingmaker following Tuesday's election, exit polls showed.

He leads the Yamina party, which has backed Israel's proposed annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, and he has made pitches to hard-right voters throughout his career.

Ahead of the latest election -- the fourth in two years -- the former defence minister highlighted his management experience, burnishing his credentials as the man to heal Israel's pandemic-battered economy.

Bennett had been part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition that collapsed in 2018.

But he was not asked to join the Netanyahu-led unity government formed in May last year, a move seen as an expression of the premier's personal contempt towards him, despite their shared ideology.

Exit polls predicted Bennett's party winning between seven and eight seats, which could be welded to a coalition led by Netanyahu or used to complete the majority of a bloc of parties opposed to the continued tenure of the longtime premier.

The polls by Israel's top three broadcasters gave a coalition led by Netanyahu's Likud and his ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies between 53 and 54 seats, with Bennett's Yamina potentially completing the 61-seat majority needed for an Israeli coalition government.

On Sunday, Bennett vowed not to join a government headed by Yair Lapid, who leads the centrist Yesh Atid party, projected to be the second largest party with 16-18 seats.

Bennett has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, which could prevent a dreaded fifth election.

After the exit polls were published late Tuesday, Bennett issued a cryptic statement that he would "only do what is good for Israel."

- Put aside politics -

Bennett entered politics after selling his tech start-up for $145 million in 2005 and the next year became chief of staff to Netanyahu, who was then in opposition.

A former special forces commando who will be 49 two days after the election, Bennett is the son of US-born parents and lives with his wife Galit and four children in the central city of Raanana.

After leaving Netanyahu's office he became in 2010 the head of the Yesha Council, which lobbies for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

He then took politics by storm in 2012 when he took charge of the hard-right Jewish Home party, which was facing extinction from parliament.

He increased its parliamentary presence fourfold, while making a series of incendiary comments about the Palestinian conflict.

In 2013, he said Palestinian "terrorists should be killed, not released."

He also argued that the West Bank is not under occupation because "there was never a Palestinian state here", and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be resolved but must be endured like a piece of "shrapnel in the buttocks".

Beyond holding the defence portfolio, Bennett has served as Netanyahu's economy minister and education minister.

He re-branded Jewish Home as Yamina (Rightward) in 2018.

In opposition and with the coronavirus pandemic raging last year, Bennett dampened his right-wing rhetoric to focus on the health crisis, releasing plans to contain the virus and aid the economy, as he sought to broaden his appeal.

"In the next years we need to put aside politics and issues like annexation or a Palestinian state, and focus on gaining control over the coronavirus pandemic, healing the economy and mending internal rifts," he told army radio in November.