Young and ambitious, with a ready smile and a quick wit, Israeli rightist leader Naftali Bennett is on a mission to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
If, as widely expected, he takes on defense or another key portfolio after next month\’s election, that mission will take a big step closer to fulfilment, something his critics say could stir conflict and deepen Israel\’s international isolation.
Bennett, 42, who has expanded the appeal of his pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi party to younger, more secular Israelis, is undeterred, saying the alternative would be worse – the end of Israel and endless war.
"Even if the world pressures us, we will not willingly commit suicide," the former tech entrepreneur and army commando told Reuters on the campaign trail.
Visiting a mall in the Israeli town of Ashkelon and surrounded by a crowd of cheering supporters, Bennett stopped to talk with stall owners eager to shake his hand and chat, while teenagers took selfies with him on their mobile phones.
In the 2013 election, Habayit Hayehudi tripled its seats under Bennett\’s new leadership to become a major partner in right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu\’s coalition government. Bennett became economy minister.
The party is looking to boost its influence in the election on March 17, held early after Netanyahu fired two centrist ministers, saying he could no longer tolerate their opposition to his policies. Polls predict Habayit Hayehudi will hold onto or increase its seats, currently 12, in the 120-member parliament.