The unorthodox Israeli settlement leader - who isn't even a settler
Naftali Bennett, who lives in an affluent suburb of Tel Aviv, is a driving force behind Netanyahu's decision not to extend the Israeli settlement freeze.
It's no surprise that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision not to extend the Israeli settlement freeze this week was due in large part to pressure from settlers.Skip to next paragraph
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But the man some credit as the driving force behind Mr. Netanyahu's controversial move is not the stereotypical settler. In fact, Naftali Bennett – director general of the umbrella settler leadership group, the Yesha Council – is not even a settler at all.
Sitting on his back patio in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana earlier this month, Mr. Bennett demonstrated his ability to shore up political support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He fed talking points by phone to settler activists at a function of the prime minister's ruling Likud Party, in one of many efforts that culminated in Israel overriding US requests for an extension of the freeze.
"Obama got beaten by Naftali," says Gil Hoffman, a political commentator for the conservative Jerusalem Post. "He won by reminding Netanyahu of his credibility. [The prime minister] realizes that he has a credibility problem and that people don’t trust him, and if he loses his credibility, it's political suicide."
An unorthodox leader to challenge stereotypes
That Bennett doesn’t actually live in an Israeli settlement makes him an unusual figure among the settlers. The movement that has traditionally viewed staking claim to hilltop heartland of the biblical Land of Israel as a personal and national mission.
Bennett’s appointment earlier this year to the helm of the Yesha Council was also unorthodox because he is a technology entrepreneur who became a multimillionaire four years ago when he sold the software company he co-founded for $145 million.
His selection reflects the tensions between two conflicting tendencies in the settler movement, which is often torn between a race to the hilltops and a desire for acceptance by the Israeli mainstream.
The choice of Bennett, is an effort to offset the stereotype that the settlers are an extremist ideological monolith, say analysts.
"It reflects moxie. They’re saying, 'You think were a bunch of fat settlers with big yarmulkes? So we’ll put a skinny high-tech millionaire who lives in Raanana in charge,' " says Mr. Hoffman. "They have tried to make themselves look mainstream and not extremist, and say they are the salt of the earth like everyday Israelis."
Bennett says he is just as focused on Israel proper as the settlements. Indeed, at a time when the settlers worry that Netanyahu’s plan for a Palestinian state will force the dismantling communities in the West Bank, Bennett says his role is reaching out to everyday Israelis to stir sympathy for the setters’ cause.