Naftali Bennett, the tough-talking right-winger poised to oust Benjamin Netanyahu

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Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett looks at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to an Israeli army base in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights - Reuters/Reuters
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett looks at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to an Israeli army base in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights - Reuters/Reuters

After dominating Israeli politics for more than a decade, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Benjamin Netanyahu leading the Jewish state.

But the elder statesman could soon be ousted by a pugnacious former tech entrepreneur who claims to be even more right-wing than his former mentor.

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Yamina movement, is poised to unseat Israel’s longest serving prime minister within a fortnight and serve as the head of a cross-party “unity” government.

There are many parallels between the two figures, who both served as special forces commandos in their youth, speak fluent unaccented English after spells in the United States and adore the free market.

They are also strong supporters of expanding settlements in the West Bank and despise the Iranian regime.

This has prompted some Israeli commentators to dub Mr Bennett as Mr Netanyahu’s “Mini-Me,” in an unflattering reference to his shaved head.

Born to American immigrants in the northern town of Haifa, Mr Bennett made his estimated $9m fortune as a tech entrepreneur before entering politics as an aide to Mr Netanyahu.

Their relationship is said to have been a tumultuous one, with 49-year-old Mr Bennett leaving his role in 2008 after a falling out with his erstwhile political hero.

Despite this, he named his eldest son Yoni after Mr Netanyahu’s brother, who was killed during an Israeli hostage rescue mission in Uganda in 1979.

Mr Bennett entered national politics in 2013, when he took the helm of a pro-settler party and eventually rekindled his relationship with Mr Netanyahu, serving under him with portfolios in defence and education.

He is also a former leader of the Yesha Council, a pro-settler lobby group, and draws much of his political support from his calls to annex the entire West Bank, which is claimed by the Palestinians as their own land.

Much like Mr Netanyahu, his inflammatory rhetoric against Palestinians has on occasion landed him in hot water. In 2013, he said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was something to be endured rather than resolved, comparing it to “shrapnel in the rear end.”

In the same year, he reportedly said during a debate on whether to release Palestinian prisoners that “If you catch terrorists, you simply have to kill them.” He is said to have added: “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”

Allies of Mr Bennett say that his business acumen makes him uniquely well placed to steer Israel out of the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, which at one point saw unemployment rise to 20 per cent.

But Mr Bennett himself has acknowledged that implementing his more controversial policies, such as annexing swathes of the West Bank, will have to wait.

His potential coalition, which has not yet been finalised, will require a delicate balance of support from both the left and the right, as well as the centrist faction Yesh Atid.

It may also depend on the external support of Arab members of parliament, which means any policies unfavourable to the Palestinians could fail to pass a vote in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

“Everyone will have to postpone the realisation of some of their dreams. We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible,” Mr Bennett said in a speech on Sunday as he outlined his bid to become Israel's next prime minister.

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