Who’s Afraid of Ayelet Shaked? Meet the Secular Jewish Nationalist Who Could Be Israel’s Prime Minister

The 40-year-old, who seeks to tighten Israel’s hold on the West Bank and shake up the court system, is a secular politician highly popular with Orthodox Jews

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked walks to the weekly cabinet meeting, October 20, 2016.
Marc Israel Sellem

Ayelet Shaked has a history of being underestimated. It happened when she burst onto the political scene as Naftali Bennett’s sidekick when the newly constituted right-wing Habayit Hayehudi debuted in the 2013 election. The solid showing by the party, which is popular with Orthodox Jews, sent Shaked to the Knesset, and less than two years later she was named justice minister.

Both times, critics zeroed in on her good looks and calculated, reserved manner – a combination that earned her the nickname the Ice Princess. They looked askance at her relative youth and inexperience, and when she won the top job at the Justice Ministry, they rapped her lack of legal credentials.

When Shaked was still a relatively fresh face, Haaretz columnist Ravit Hecht contemplated her future, musing whether her fierce right-wing ideology represented “unbridled teenage-style enthusiasm, limited binary thinking that includes childish worship of one-dimensional nationalist ideas, or are we witnessing a sophisticated, mathematical talent for harnessing the soul of the nation for the benefit of the settlers?”

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Hecht and other pundits no longer need to wonder. Condemned and feared, but no longer derided by the left, Shaked, 40, is taking steps that push Israel toward her vision of a Jewish state, steps that her supporters cheer as true patriotism and Zionism and opponents view as racist, xenophobic and anti-democratic.

Both as a legislator and as justice minister, Shaked hasn’t missed an opportunity to translate her ideology into policy. Her priorities are clear: strengthening Israel’s hold on the West Bank with the goal of annexation without granting equal rights to Palestinians, furthering the settlement enterprise to that end, and doing what she can to make Israel increasingly Jewish in both numbers and nature.

Shaked has been working hard to promote reforms that would change the process by which judges are selected. She hopes to transfer as much of the decision-making process as possible to the Knesset, away from civil servants and sitting judges, in the hope of shaping a judiciary less likely to block or modify laws passed by parliament on the grounds that they violate civil rights.

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, November 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Her first major accomplishment in influencing the courts’ composition came last February, with the appointment to the Supreme Court of four new justices – three of whom are considered conservative. “Today we made history,” she said when announcing the appointments, saying that they “reflect the human and legal diversity so needed in our society, and which until now has been so lacking on our highest court.”

The courts haven’t been her sole target. Shaked was the legislator who sponsored the so-called NGO law that mandates special reporting requirements by nongovernmental organizations that receive most of their funding from foreign governments, nearly all of them identified with the left. Shaked is also a fierce proponent of the controversial bill that would declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Learning from Netanyahu

It increasingly appears that she’s poised to be the most successful female Israeli politician since Golda Meir, and might strive to become the country’s second female prime minister. She hasn’t ruled that out, though as a loyal soldier, she says she would only do so after Bennett wore the crown. She made that statement after a party poll found that Habayit Hayehudi would win three more Knesset seats if she topped the ticket instead of Bennett.

Ayelet Shaked, center, meeting with Supreme Court justices, September 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

In an earlier poll, when Israelis asked which woman in national politics was most suited to be prime minister, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni came out first in a sample of both Jews and Arabs, and Shaked ran a close second. But when the sample was limited to Jews, Shaked was the favorite. And Shaked is a full two decades younger than Livni.

Even those who despise Shaked’s political positions are impressed by her political maneuvering. She has clearly learned lessons from the two men with whom she has worked most closely in politics: Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With Bennett she shares the quality of “not apologizing” – refusing to take the edges off her pro-settlement, anti-two-state-solution views to please the centrists, the media or foreign leaders.

Hers is an assertive uncompromising “Israel First” message, epitomized by her declaration at the Israel Bar Association last week: “Zionism needn’t continue, and won’t continue, to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way.”

She is an anomaly in Israeli politics, espousing nationalist, ethnocentric views typical of a rumpled religious male politician from the settlements packaged in an educated secular woman from north Tel Aviv. Like Netanyahu, Shaked has mastered the art of being a secular person whom religious-Zionists can view as one of their own.

A computer engineer by training, Shaked entered political life in 2006 as bureau chief for Netanyahu, who was then the opposition leader. Netanyahu became her first political mentor, but it was in his offices that Shaked forged her bond with Bennett – in fact, she hired him. The pair’s falling-out and subsequent bad blood with both the prime minister and his wife Sara have become legend. Both Shaked and Bennett have refused to comment on the reasons for the feud, but the tension is always palpable when either of them is in the room with Netanyahu.

After Bennett and Shaked abandoned the Netanyahu ship, they joined forces in 2010 to form the political group Yisrael Sheli (My Israel), and shortly afterward, Shaked left Netanyahu’s Likud party to join Bennett in reshaping Habayit Hayehudi. That outfit’s 2015 primary was a testament to Shaked's popularity in the party – she finished first in an open vote, winning more support than religious men with significant political followings.

In her current power base at the Justice Ministry, as well as in the Knesset, she chips away at anything she sees as an obstacle to these goals.

“The route of the train of Israeli justice must take into account the Jewishness of the state,” she wrote in a much-cited 2016 article in the right-wing journal Hashiloah. In that piece, Shaked called for a reversal of the “constitutional revolution” spearheaded by Aharon Barak when he headed the Supreme Court from 1995 to 2006. Shaked believes that this revolution has overly empowered a judiciary dominated by leftists.

Ayelet Shaked speaking in the Knesset, November 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

‘Ethnocentric racist’

Shaked was even more emphatic in her bar association speech, an attack on a recent court ruling on African asylum seekers in Israel, one that declared that they can’t be jailed for over two months after refusing deportation to third-party countries like Rwanda and Uganda.

Many critics are horrified by Shaked’s actions to promote her vision. Hebrew University’s Daniel Blatman wrote this week that her “new Zionism” is a dangerous concoction combining “the colonialist settlement ethos of the labor movement and ethnocentric-racist Jewish components that together lead to a major revision of the fundamental definitions of the Jewish state.” Her words at the bar association and her writings, he said, recall “the racist xenophobia of the southern U.S. states during the 1930s and onward, and of the racist right that is hostile to immigration and is flourishing today in those countries created by European colonialism.”

Members of the religious camp have leapt to her defense in the face of such criticism. “I very much praise the minister of justice for bringing to the forefront the most fundamental things that are part of our very existence,” Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Bnei Akiva yeshiva network, told the rightist website Arutz Sheva. “We must place the needs of the community at the top of our priorities, the people of Israel, the Land of Israel, and not the needs of the individual, as much as they are important.” He said the “needs of the community take precedence.”

Shaked earned one unlikely fan with her speech, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who dubbed her Israel’s “minister of truth” – someone who unmasked Zionism to reveal its true ugliness.

“Thank you, Ayelet Shaked, for telling the truth. Thank you for speaking honestly. The justice minister has proved once again that Israel’s extreme right is better than the deceivers of the center-left: It speaks honestly,” Levy wrote, adding that “for Shaked and the right, the debate on human and civil rights is anti-Zionist, even anti-Semitic. It seeks to undermine and destroy the Jewish state.”

Ayelet Shaked at a cabinet meeting, January 29, 2017.
Ohad Zwigenberg

In a recent effort to soften her image, a week before her bar association speech, Shaked spent a day in front of the cameras with Israeli-Arab journalist Lucy Aharish on her television show “Hamashpi’im”(“The Influencers”). Aharish tried – rather unsuccessfully – to loosen up the carefully controlled Shaked on a “this is your life” road trip, dropping by the home of her best friends (who said that even they didn’t agree with Shaked’s politics). Aharish took Shaked to the hospital room where Shaked’s mother died of cancer, and ended the trip in the place where Shaked said she was happiest – her Justice Ministry office.

At the end of the show, as Shaked leaned back in her chair, Aharish asked her what she would say to herself as a young girl if she could go back in time. Shaked replied, with her characteristic confidence, that “first and foremost the sky is the limit and she can achieve anything she sets her mind to.”

That’s what Shaked’s many supporters surely believe, and what her many critics – and perhaps her potential political rivals – worry about.