Israel’s Justice Chief Packs Her Ministry With Party Faithful

While Ayelet Shaked’s plans for the Supreme Court have drawn most of the attention, the Habayit Hayehudi stalwart is conducting a facelift at her ministry too

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in Jerusalem, February 26, 2018.
Emil Salman

In November, amid the debate over the politicization of Israel’s legal system, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attended the annual conference of the State Prosecutor’s Office. The hundreds of attorneys at Eilat asked her many questions, and eventually someone asked the big one: “How is it that all your senior appointments at the Justice Ministry are of religious people?”

The person doing the asking was the head of the international department at the State Prosecutor’s Office, Yuval Kaplinsky, who himself is religious.

Shaked, who squirmed a bit, named a few nonreligious people she had promoted. “She went name after name, noting whether they were religious or not,” said someone present. “The situation was simply embarrassing.”

The battle over the changes in the legal system isn’t something Shaked has tried to hide. But while the spotlight has been mostly on the Judicial Appointments Committee and the many conservative and religious candidates it has proposed for the courts, there’s one more key factor. Shaked is responsible for the appointment of senior officials at her ministry. She has now appointed 12 people to such positions since she took office almost three years ago.

Sources have told Haaretz that five of those 12 have links to Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party. The first was Ohad Eini, who was appointed the head of the land appraisal division, the official government appraiser. Eini is a member of the party.

Ohad Eini
Courtesy Justice Ministry

Next was Tommer Moskovitz of the Law Enforcement and Collection System Authority (formerly the Bailiff’s Office). Moskovitz was supported by Habayit Hayehudi’s chairman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to become the Chief Rabbinate’s director general, and his wife joined Habayit Hayehudi last year.

Tommer Moskovitz
Government Services and Information Website

The third appointment was of Gilad Semama, who heads the ministry’s legal aid division. He was the chief of staff of Habayit Hayehudi minister Uri Orbach, who died in 2015. Also, both of Semama’s parents are members of the party.

The fourth appointment, Meir Levin, was appointed the legal adviser for economic affairs. Levin is not directly linked to the party, but his parents and brother are members, and he studied at a school where some leaders of the settlement enterprise also studied. He also attends the same synagogue as Bennett.

The fifth appointment is Ofir Alon, the commissioner of patents and trademarks. He has appeared on a list of Habayit Hayehudi members, as do his parents, but he has denied ever joining the party.

Ofir Alon
From Ofir Alon's LinkedIn page

According to the Justice Ministry, all this is just a coincidence. But a senior ministry official told Haaretz that “everyone knows and lives with the reality in which all appointments are made according to [Shaked’s] wishes – whether because of their religious or right-wing identity.”

As the official put it, “Someone is just plain excellent professionally, and during the natural course of things it would be proper for him to be appointed, but he isn’t connected or doesn’t wear a kippa.”

A senior person at the ministry said other ministries also make appointments based on political and party connections, but “the difference is that Shaked is trying to portray herself as clean and the appointments as professional, even when it’s clear she has introduced irrelevant considerations.”

The Civil Service Commission’s regulations do not prohibit civil servants from joining a political party, but senior officials may not serve on a party’s body that chooses Knesset candidates. But Habayit Hayehudi holds a primary, so in this sense such officials can influence the choice of Shaked and her position on the party’s slate. Sources told Haaretz that Shaked and her staff spend significant time forging a camp of supporters within the party as well as recruiting new members.

One person who joined Habayit Hayehudi after Shaked became justice minister is Eini, the government appraiser, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Elazar. He is considered close to Bentzi Lieberman, the former head of the Israel Land Authority and the Yesha Council of settlers. Eini’s appointment as government appraiser did not attract much attention.

“Except for the fact that I joined [the party], I have done nothing [in the party] .... I voted a long time ago. But except for that I’m not involved in anything there and certainly not since I was appointed to the post; I even forgot I was a member,” Eini told Haaretz.

“There’s no connection whatsoever between my political opinions and my appointment. I have never met with [Shaked] since I was appointed – not professionally and not non-professionally.”

Shaked, for her part, referred questions to the Justice Ministry spokesman.

The Justice Ministry said: “Joining a party is a person’s personal prerogative. It is not considered a political affiliation that requires reporting within the framework of search committees ... all the more so when it concerns the candidate’s relatives.”

As the ministry put it, “This is different than active membership in party organs such as the central committee or electoral body, or some other affiliation that requires reporting. It should be emphasized that none of the officials mentioned in this article has a political affiliation that requires reporting.”

According to the ministry, all the selection processes Haaretz asked about were conducted based on all the relevant rules and regulations, and the people appointed are top-notch professionals chosen by the search committee based only on their skills and experience. Most were chosen unanimously.

“The attempt to present these professional officials as political appointments is an attack on their reputations .... These are absurd claims that have no basis in reality and border on libel,” the ministry said. “Your decision to reach absurd conclusions based on a number of isolated appointments out of over 20 other senior appointments made at the ministry during [Shaked’s] term is patently tendentious.”

The other appointments cited by the ministry spokesman include those of deputy attorneys general, division heads and deputy directors general. But Haaretz has found that among the appointments mentioned by the ministry, some were made without a competitive application process, others were not considered senior positions and some were just the extension of terms.