Set to be Israel's prime minister, Bennett has a narrow pool for choosing aides

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Naftali Bennett is poised to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister on Sunday, but his pool for choosing top aides is limited because the number of people he has worked with closely in his political career is modest.

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Bennett, a high-tech veteran, may prefer to bring in people from that industry for certain jobs. Bennett was the CEO of a startup specializing in online banking security software.

The leader of the Yamina party will first have to fill up the so-called aquarium, the office set off by glass doors from the rest of the Prime Minister’s Office. This is where the prime minister and the closest advisers sit, including the chief of staff, bureau chief, cabinet secretary, communications director and political and strategic advisers, as well as the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Naftali Bennett and Shmuel Abuav at the Education Ministry in 2017. Credit: דודו בכר

Three names have been mentioned for director general; the first is Eyal Gabbai, who held that job in Benjamin Netanyahu’s second government that took office in 2009. Gabbai served for three years and currently is the chairman of Meuhedet, one of Israel’s four health maintenance organizations. Gabbai is no longer in contact with Netanyahu.

The second is Shmuel Abuav, a director general of the Education Ministry under Bennett. Abuav once announced he would join  Yamina but in the end decided not to run for the Knesset. Abuav also served as director general of the Education Ministry under Yuli Tamir, who was in office from 2006 to 2009. Abuav was also director general of the Construction and Housing Ministry in 2006.

Benjamin Netanyahu and the then-outgoing director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eyal Gabbai, 2011. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The third person under consideration is the less well-known Dvir Kahana, currently the director general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. He has worked with Bennett for a long time. Kahana began his political career as an activist in the right-wing group Elad that operates the City of David National Park just outside Jerusalem’s Old City and strives to bring Jews back to live in East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

In 2013, when Economy Minister Bennett was also appointed minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, he chose Kahana as director general. Kahana stayed on during Netanyahu’s government with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan.

Dvir Kahana, right, a longtime aide of Naftali Bennett, left, in 2014. Credit: Haim Tzach / GPO

Tal Gan-Zvi, meanwhile, is expected to be Bennett’s chief of staff, even though his name has been mentioned as a possible director general. He was born in Haifa and is a graduate of the yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Eli, a well-known figure in the religious Zionist movement who has headed Bennett’s office since back when he was economy minister. Gan-Zvi accompanied Bennett to the education and defense ministries, and also ran Yamina’s negotiating team.

A name being mentioned as a possible cabinet secretary is Gil Bringer, though his chances aren’t considered great because he’s actually closer to Bennett’s No. 2, Ayelet Shaked.

Tal Gan-Zvi, left, and Shalom Shlomo, on their way to coalition talks in April. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

For Shaked, Bringer was the legislative adviser and the adviser on relations between the Knesset and the cabinet, and managed the Ministerial Committee for Legislation when Shaked was justice minister. Bringer, a lawyer, was Shaked’s representative for Yamina during the coalition talks, and took part in all the negotiations with all the coalition parties.

Shaked might try to find him a senior post in Bennett’s office, though he may wind up serving in the Interior Ministry under Shaked.

Ayelet Shaked and Gil Bringer in the Knesset in 2017. Credit: Amit Shabi

Another aide of Bennett in recent years is Matan Sidi, who is expected to be appointed communications director in the Prime Minister’s Office. Sidi, just 25, joined Bennett in 2018 when the Yamina chief was education minister, and was his spokesman as defense minister and during the election campaigns over the past two years.

Sidi started out in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit and also served as the spokesman for State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman.

Matan Sidi and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset last month. Credit: Yonatan Zindel / Flash 90

Another person close to Bennett is political adviser Shalom Shlomo, who has worked with many politicians and was part of Yamina’s team for the coalition talks. But Shlomo isn’t expected to receive a job at the Prime Minister’s Office.

It’s unclear if Bennett will appoint a head for the National Information Directorate, which liaises with the international media and works with the Foreign Ministry. This job has been unfilled since 2015.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, as the alternative prime minister due to rotate the premiership with Bennett in two years, is expected to appoint close confidant Naama Schultz as his director general. Schultz is now serving as Yesh Atid’s strategy director and has been with Lapid since his days as finance minister in 2013 and 2014, in the early days of Yesh Atid. Lapid once criticized the need for an alternate prime minister’s office with all its government jobs.

The civil service regulations allow the prime minister to appoint 40 people to “positions of trust” at the Prime Minister’s Office and prime minister’s residence. They include the bureau chief, two media advisers, an adviser for relations with the Knesset, a political adviser, the manager of the Prime Minister’s Bureau, an adviser for special events and visits, an adviser for correspondence, an adviser on strategic affairs, six positions for aides and advisers, and five other advisers on various matters who must be approved by a committee of the Civil Service Commission.

The prime minister may also appoint six secretaries and drivers, an adviser on matters concerning the residence, the residence’s chief of staff and an adviser on the residence’s operations, as well as two assistants and six housekeeping staff.