Naftali Bennett does not fit the mold of a typical Jewish settler leader.
He’s only 38. He’s the son of a fifth-generation San Franciscan. He made his fortune in high tech before entering what he describes as public service. And he doesn’t even live in the West Bank.
A former commando and company commander in the Israeli army, Bennett is now preparing for a possible battle against an old ally: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
From 2006 to 2008, Bennett worked as Netanyahu’s right-hand man, serving as his chief of staff. But as the new director general of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Bennett finds himself at odds with Netanyahu, for whom he worked tirelessly to bring back to power.
The dynamic Bennett does not hold back on what he thinks of the effort of his former boss to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians — one that, if successful, would lead to a Palestinian state that likely would necessitate the evacuation of some Jewish settlements.
“I strongly believe that Judea and Samaria has to be ours because I don’t think we can survive without it,” Bennett said, using the biblical name for the West Bank.
“A Palestinian state here, in the heart of Israel? I think it’s national suicide,” he added. “Judea and Samaria are on a tall mountain range that overlooks the very narrow sliver of land about nine miles from the sea.”
Bennett was interviewed for this article at the visitors’ center of Tel Shiloh, an archaeological site scholars believe to be the location of the biblical city of Shiloh, the first Israelite capital and one-time home to the Ark of the Covenant.
“It’s that mountain range that protects my home in Ra’anana,” said Bennett, who lives in the leafy Tel Aviv suburb with his wife and three young children.
He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in Haifa. He wears a small, black kippah, just like his father, Jim Bennett, who traces his family’s Bay Area origins back to the Gold Rush days.
Jim Bennett and his wife, Myrna, were longtime members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the couple took an extended vacation to Israel.
They decided to make the vacation permanent. They settled in Haifa and had three sons, one of them Naftali. “He’s a natural leader and been that way since he was a little kid,” said Jim Bennett of his son.
Not so long ago Naftali Bennett was preoccupied not with issues of war and peace but the high-tech start-up he co-founded and ran. The firm, Cyota, developed highly sought-after anti-fraud software for banks.
In 2005 he sold the company for $145 million to RSA Security, a U.S. firm. Seven out of 10 bank transactions in the United States and Canada are now utilizing Cyota’s engineering, according to Bennett.
A year after exiting the high-tech world, Bennett, like thousands of other Israeli men, received an emergency call-up order to serve in the Second Lebanon War. Devastated when his best friend was killed in the fighting, he decided not to return to the business world.
Bennett soon started to work for Netanyahu, who was then the head of the opposition.
These days, the two men probably have conversations that aren’t quite as friendly as a few years ago.
Bennett is unequivocal that the settlement freeze in the West Bank must not be extended. Settlements, he says, are the Western world’s frontline against Islamic terror.
“There is no political option to give a new freeze order — the world should instead be strengthening our presence here,” said Bennett, who works under the Yesha Council’s chairman, Danny Dayan. “No one else in the region can predict what will be in the Middle East in even the next two years. Iran could topple Iraq. What breeds terror is the hope of kicking us out of here.”
Bennett’s father says he sees eye to eye with the son.
“Not everybody accepts the conventional wisdom,” said Jim Bennett regarding the two-state solution. “It could mean the demise of Israel over time. There’s no law that says there has to be a Palestinian state.”
“They want a state,” said the younger Bennett of the Palestinians. “And I want to live.”
Suddenly quiet, he added, “It’s a tragedy.”