Israel’s Complicated Politics and the United Right – a Nationalist Conservative, Zionist, Radical Woman-Lead Faction

Ayelet Shaked

How Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman, came to dominate the right-wing religious camp in Israel

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Late last month, as Israel prepared for yet another round of elections, Ayelet Shaked ascended to the leadership of the United Right, a joint list comprising the primary factions representing the nation’s religious Zionist community.

While women have led Israeli political parties, none has ever risen to the pinnacle of political power in a bloc representing the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox community.

And even more remarkable, the 43-year-old mother of two is a secular Jew from Tel Aviv.

So who is Ayelet Shaked and how did she overcome decades of political tradition?

Growing up as a middle-class child in the Tel Aviv of the 1980s, Shaked could have been expected to develop into a left-leaning Labor or Meretz voter, a proponent of two states and liberal policies. But as Shaked told The New York Times in 2015, she experienced a personal revelation at the age of 8 when she watched Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir debate an opponent on television: She was swayed by his nationalistic perspective.

During their mandatory military service, some Israelis tend to shift to the right, at least for a while, and a stint as an instructor in the storied Golani infantry brigade helped Shaked strengthen her conservative political outlook.

“I just realized there will not be a solution right now,” she told The Times.

Like the coalition she represents, Shaked is staunchly pro-settlement and hawkish on defense.

Although she studied computer engineering and began her career working for Texas Instruments, Shaked pivoted to politics in 2006, going to work for then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as his bureau chief. She brought along with her the future Jewish Home party head and frequent collaborator Naftali Bennett, helping him make a similar transition from high tech to the dog-eat-dog world of Israeli parliamentary politics.

The two worked for Netanyahu for four years but left following a reported falling-out with his wife, Sara. In 2012, Bennett and Shaked entered the world of right-wing, pro-settlement politics. That was the year that Jewish Home — a party composed of the old National Religious Party and several smaller right-wing factions — held its first open primaries. Bennett, religiously modern Orthodox and politically hawkish, entered the Knesset in 2013 at the top of its list. Shaked took its fifth seat. 

By the 2015 primary Shaked, having only finished her first term in the Knesset, was popular enough with the party base that she came in second behind Bennett, establishing her position as a leader of the nationalist camp. In a party traditionally led by older, gray-haired men, Shaked at 39 not only was an ideological torchbearer but literally a fresh face: a young, stylish woman.

A stint as the country’s justice minister under Netanyahu further cemented her popularity. With mixed success, Shaked sought to overhaul an activist judiciary that in her view handcuffed the military and undermined the right-wing elected government. She also helped pass a controversial bill that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Supporters said it made an obvious reality into law, while opponents attacked it for prioritizing an ethnic identity over democracy.

Her critics say she is a threat to that democracy.

“While Shaked was ‘polite,’ she was also a bulldozer that would run roughshod over liberal democracy,” Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker representing the liberal Meretz party, said in a Facebook post. Her attempt to remake the judiciary is “not a misunderstanding of what democracy is, it is a desire to destroy it and establish the Jewish state, the settlements, and Jewish supremacy instead of the state of equality.”

In March, Shaked’s team produced a mock perfume ad featuring “Fascism by Ayelet Shaked” in which she posed like a model while a narrator taunted her liberal critics.

Whatever it takes to win

Both her effectiveness as a politician and Jewish Home’s move toward open primaries helped Shaked advance in the religious sector, according to Yair Sheleg, who researches the religious Zionist sector at the Israel Democracy Institute.

In many ways, he said, its followers consider the nationalist aspect of religious Zionism — settling all of biblical Israel, asserting Israel’s Jewish character — as more fundamental than the religious aspect. Many leaders in the community “can live with Shaked as the leader because she brings many more voters” than other politicians.

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Revisiting Lori Shem-Tov, the Sex Scandal that is Rocking the Israeli Judiciary

Shaked faces calls to resign as sex scandal rocks Israel judiciary

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is seen at the podium as she gives a statement at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 19, 2018 (Photo by: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is facing calls to resign as Israeli politicians accuse her of complicity in a sex scandal that has rocked the country’s judiciary.

Shaked yesterday hit back at accusations that she bore responsibility for the scandal, in which the head of the Israel Bar Association, Efraim (Efi) Nave, allegedly helped appoint a female judge in return for sexual favours.

Nave is thought to be a powerful ally of Shaked’s within the judicial system, with both sitting on Israel’s Judicial Appointments Committee which assigns judges to the Israeli courts. Shaked’s political opponents are now claiming she allowed Nave to allegedly abuse his power under her watch in order to promote her own political interests.

Shaked yesterday hit back at this criticism, labelling it “an unbridled, false and inflammatory attack,” the Times of Israel (ToI) reported. The Israeli daily added that Shaked took “particular issue with female ‘left-wing Knesset members’,” telling a Bar Association seminar that “we have our political differences, but I considered them colleagues. They are all women, and that is my disappointment”.

Shaked was likely referring to criticism levelled against her by Shelly Yachimovich, who earlier this week slammed the justice minister for her alleged involvement in the affair. Yachimovich – who replaced Tzipi Livni as leader of the opposition following the latter’s unceremonious dismissal earlier this month –  said in a statement on Wednesday: “[The] judicial selection committee operated under terror and corruption, under the destructive leadership of Justice Minister Shaked, and the rotten environment and broken alliances that created it are the ground for the horrific affair being exposed today.”

The scandal in which Shaked is implicated has shaken the Israel judicial system since details first emerged on Wednesday. Nave was arrested by the Israel Police on suspicion of offering promotions in exchange for sexual favours, as part of an investigation which saw his home and the Israel Bar Association offices in Jerusalem raided, Haaretz reported. The police seized documents and computer files during the raid. Nave has been released to house arrest for eight days pending further investigation.

Nave is suspected of appointing a female judge to an Israeli magistrates’ court in return for illicit acts. According to the Times of Israel, he is also “suspected of having sexual relations with the wife of another judge, for the purpose of helping her husband advance from a magistrate’s court to a district court position”.

Though the incidents are thought to have taken place several years ago, the Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit of the Israel Police only opened the probe two weeks ago, after Israel Army Radio journalist Hadas Shteif provided information to the police about the case. Additional details continue to emerge, with the investigation initially placed under gag order by Israel’s censor.

READ: Ex-Israel minister given 11 year jail term for spying for Iran

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has disqualified himself from dealing with the case “given his friendship with the main suspect”. Instead the case will be overseen by State Attorney Shai Nitzan, who ToI explains personally authorised Nave’s arrest.

The political ramifications of the scandal are yet to play out, though the revelations could be damaging to Shaked’s newly-formed New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party. Shaked, along with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, broke away from the Jewish Home party in a bid to head into Israel’s upcoming general election with a clean slate, distancing themselves from what the religious-Zionist camp and hoping to steal seats from the ruling Likud party.

Other Knesset members (MKs) however blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for fostering an environment marred by corruption. Revital Swed, of the Israel Labor party, said: “The new affair highlights the four-year campaign of destruction, in which the prime minister and the justice minister abused the judicial system, politicizing it. When this is the norm, it is no wonder that the committee for the appointment of judges is also desecrated.”

Swed was of course referring to the numerous corruption cases levied against Netanyahu. The prime minister is under investigation in three separate probes –dubbed Case 1000Case 2000and Case 4000 respectively – and has repeatedly attacked the police and judicial system, claiming they are biased against him.