On Sunday, Israeli’s parliament, which for the past 12 years has been led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, experienced a historic transfer of power, as former tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing Yamina party, won a confidence vote by the narrowest margin (60 to 59, with one abstention).
Bennett is backed by one of the most diverse coalitions in Israel’s history, including the first Arab party to serve in the government. And in his speech earlier this week, the new prime minister highlighted that diversity and spoke of the need for unity in the country. Bennett is expected to hold the position for two years, at which point he has agreed to hand over power to centrist leader Yair Lapid, now foreign minister.
Footwear executives with business and family ties in Israel said this is a significant moment for the country, which has been in political turmoil and which earlier this year grappled with renewed violence in Gaza stemming from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Israel has been in a political crisis for the last several years — this has been the fourth election since no one was able to form a coalition. It is going to be very interesting to see the progress,” said David Ben Zikry, CEO and co-founder of Spring Footwear Corp.
Steve Lax, worldwide chairman of Yaleet Inc., added, “This new consensus is really pretty amazing. It is the first time Arabs are sitting in the room. So that’s a huge thing for democracy.” (Yaleet owns the Naot brand, which manufactures shoes in northern Israel, employing both Israeli and Palestinian workers.)
Lax described his overall feeling about the new leadership as “pessimistically optimistic,” adding that he hopes the coalition can hold together for at least a year or two.
Ayelet Aviv, VP of creative for Aetrex Worldwide, which has a technology development office in Israel, agreed that the new union is historic — but tenuous.
“Eight ideologically diffused parties formed a coalition with one goal in mind: to replace Netanyahu,” said Aviv, who was born and raised in Israel. “It’s very hard to imagine a scenario in which parties from opposing ideologies — a far-right-wing Zionist and a far-left Arab party — agree on extremely difficult issues and pass laws together. The eight parties do not have much in common when it comes to fundamental issues in Israel, so it is really unusual to see them come together as one unit.”
Aside from conflicts within the coalition, Bennett already is being tested by the Palestinian group Hamas, which launched incendiary balloons along the Gaza border this week, sparking a response by the Israeli military. He also is facing some backlash from right-wing factions in the country.
“Many blame him for breaking his promises and stealing the votes since he clearly stated prior to the election that he will not join the left party,” said Ben Zikry, who was born and raised in Tel Aviv alongside his twin brother and business partner, Avi. He currently maintains a home there — coincidentally on the same street as the new prime minister. “We have daily demonstrations against him, but I hope it will be quiet again soon.”
The prime minister has said his government will focus first on domestic issues such as reforms to education and health care, as well as cutting government red tape.
Footwear executives have their own wish lists for the new leadership.
Lax said he’s looking forward to the government moving quickly to create a budget. “Everything’s ground to a halt politically in this country because nobody could ever sit down, get the job done,” he said. “So there’s been very little government help. You can’t even apply for government loans.”
He also hopes that the leaders will begin to loosen some religious restrictions, such as rules that make it difficult to operate retail businesses on Saturdays, and form a closer relationship with U.S. President Joe Biden. “I think there’s going to be an outreach back to the American government, the Democrats and the vast majority of American Jews with this government,” said Lax.
Overall, though, business leaders expressed a hope that this change marks a positive turning point after decades of division.
Yossi Dror, SVP of Aetrex Israel (and hardware development lead) said, “The most important goal for Israel today is to establish a good standing and spirit between the various parties.”
Aetrex Worldwide CEO Larry Schwartz echoed a similar sentiment: “As a global company with an office in Israel, we understand political situations can affect employees both personally and professionally. We hope for peace, stability and safety among all people in the region.”
Ben Zikry added, “We hope that the new government will be able to focus on getting to work and find a way to put their efforts to what they are in agreement on and avoid topics that can create separation and break the government.”