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Israel: Lapid, Abbas, Gantz…who’s who in Naftali Bennett’s new government?

By Sofiane Orus-Boudjema
Posted on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 18:21

Naftali Bennett, Israeli parliament member from the Yamina party, gives a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, June 6, 2021. Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

From a tech millionaire to an ultra-nationalist leader, we take a look at Israel's new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the other members of his new government. Out of the 119 deputies present in the Knesset, 60 have shown their support for Bennett's new coalition.

The former businessman was born in Haifa, a ‘mixed city’ in Israel, which he left for Ra’anana – a predominantly Jewish city where he currently lives with his wife and four children. This supporter of Greater Israel made a fortune with Cyotta – a start-up specialising in the fight against online fraud – before entering politics. After a stint as head of Benyamin Netanyahu’s campaign office, he left the Likud for Yisra’el Sheli – a far-right party. The man who concluded the coalition agreements alongside the Arab Mansour Abbas made headlines in 2013 by declaring to national security advisor Yaakov Amidror that: “I have killed many Arabs in my life. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

In November 2012, he became the head of the party which won 12 seats in the Knesset in 2013. He then became minister of industry, trade and employment as well as minister of religious affairs. He then began to move back and forth between the Knesset and different ministries until 2019: he managed the portfolio of defence while serving as an MP. He is now at the head of Yamina, an Israeli political alliance of right-wing parties that was originally configured as the New Right and the Union of Right-Wing Parties. On June 6, he spoke in the Knesset and called on his former colleague Netanyahu to “liberate the country so it can move forward”.

Yair Lapid, from talk show to foreign affairs

Yair Lapid is the cornerstone of the new anti-Netanyahu coalition. The former star journalist of Aroutz 2, who hosted his own eponymous talk show, succeeded in his bet: to depose the man who has been at the head of the Israeli government for 12 years.

His political career began in 2012 after he left the television industry to create a centrist and secular political party – Yesh Atid. In the 2013 legislative elections, the party won 19 seats in the Knesset and became the first opposition force against Likud. For the first time, Lapid sat on the Knesset benches, of which he will never leave.

Charged with forming a government, Likud then tried to recruit Lapid but the former TV star proved to be tough in negotiations. However, he finally accepted the post of finance minister without forming any ties with Netanyahu. In December 2014, he was fired and officially joined the opposition.

Following the March 2021 legislative elections, Lapid took revenge when he was tasked with forming a government, after the failure of Netanyahu. Supported by eight parties, from the far right to political Islam, he managed to form a coalition in extremis. Currently the minister of foreign affairs, he will head the government after the first two years of Bennett’s premiership.

Benny Gantz, the ex-Israel boss in Justice

After he failed to form a coalition to end the reign of Netanyahu, Benny Gantz became part of the coalition established by Lapid and Bennett.

Gantz was born in a southern province of Israel founded by Jewish immigrants in 1949. After studying history and political science, he joined the Israeli army at the age of 18. He became a paratrooper and graduated from the IDF Officers’ School. He rose through the ranks and became commander of various battalions. During the second intifada, he was assigned to the command of the northern region. After assisting Gabi Ashkenazi as vice-chief of staff in 2011, he led the Israeli army for four years.

In 2018, he left the army for politics where he announced the creation of the Hosen L’Yisrael party, part of the Blue and White coalition that garnered as many seats as Netanyahu’s Likud in the April 2019 legislative elections. Unable to form a government, the centrist coalition took the lead in the opposition and a game of ping-pong between Gantz and Netanyahu began. However, both failed to form a government.

As part of negotiations with Likud to form a national unity government, the former military officer also chaired the Knesset in 2020. Gantz, who was the head of the ministries of defence and justice in quick succession, is now Bennett’s new defence minister.

Mansour Abbas, conciliatory Islamist

This is a first since 1992, when the government of Yitzhak Rabin – Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1994 – was formed. Mansour Abbas, a conservative Islamist, is the first Israeli Arab leader to be part of a government coalition. He was even the keystone of the coalition, made possible thanks to his support. “This agreement has a lot to offer to Arab society, and to Israeli society in general,” said a delighted Abbas.

Abbas grew up in Maghar, an Israeli village where the majority of the population is Muslim and Druze. After an adolescence marked by his study of religion, he became a dentist and opened a practice in the town he grew up. His political life began in 2007, when he joined the general secretariat of the United Arab List, one of the parties of the Arab minority in Israel, which supported the two-state solution. In 2010, he became vice-president of the moderate branch of the Islamist movement in Israel, which chose not to boycott the elections.

In 2019, he won his first seat in the Knesset as a member of the Unified List – which includes the leftist Hadash party and three Arab movements: the Joint List, Ta’al and Balad. His position on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pragmatic, which is why he is “courted by the whole political spectrum,” says Thomas Vescovi, a historian and author of The Memory of the Nakba in Israel.

However, Mansour Abbas had to leave the Joint List in March 2021 after he said: “If I were a Jew, I would vote for him [Netanyahu]”. If, for the moment, his place in Bennett’s government has not been confirmed, his role in the formation of the government coalition has propelled him to the forefront of the Israeli political scene.

Ayelet Shaked, a conservative Zionist in the Interior

“Come here, to these people who embraced you. They feel disappointed and betrayed. Look them in the eye.” These are the words of Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, spoken at the front of Ayelet Shaked’s house. The MP from the Yamina alliance – the right-wing coalition led by Bennett – is accused of treason attributable to the Israeli right-wing for having joined the mixed coalition.

Shaked, elected to the Knesset, grew up in the centre of Tel Aviv. Her Ashkenazi mother and her Iraqi Jewish father, born in Iran, gave her a rich cultural heritage. She claims to be “half Iraqi” of which she says she is “proud”. After a stint in the Israeli army – that she joined when she came of age – Shaked graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in electronic and computer engineering. Her political involvement began in 2006, in Netanyahu’s cabinet. In May 2021, she described the former prime minister and his wife as “power-hungry tyrants”.

She left the Likud leader in 2008 to form the Zionist and conservative movement Yisra’el Sheli with Bennett. In January 2012, Shaked returned to the Likud party and was elected member of the party’s central committee, before leaving it for good in June, to join the nationalist party HaBayit HaYehudi. In 2013, she joined Knesset under this association.

A few hours before the end of the deadline to form a government, Netanyahu appointed her as justice minister in May 2015. Her growing influence in the Israeli political scene led to Forbes magazine voting her as Israel’s ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2017. She is currently the new minister of interior.

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