Intermediaries on behalf of Ayelet Shaked told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the former justice minister would be willing to try to influence the attorney general to be lenient with Netanyahu, a suspect in several corruption cases.
The offer to the premier, who is currently awaiting a pre-indictment hearing, was made as part of Shaked’s efforts to rejoin the Likud party in advance of the September 17 election.
Conversations with political sources, recordings and correespondence that Haaretz has witnessed reveal that Shaked’s associates offered her categorical support for immunity for Netanyahu, as a means to keep him from standing trial.
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Shaked commented on Monday that if such statements were made, they were not uttered at her directive.
Ultimately Shaked did not return to Likud, her original political home over a decade ago, and she is now chairwoman of Yamina, a new alliance of right-wing parties.
Before the last election in April, Shaked and Naftali Bennett, her colleague from Habayit Hayehudi, set up a new party called Hayamin Hehadash, which did not win enough votes to secure seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu was tapped by President Reuven Rivlin to form a new government, but after he failed to do, and a new election was called for next month, prompting Shaked to redouble her efforts to rejoin Likud.
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Those efforts continued even after she was declared head of Hayamin Hahadash, which then merged last week with the Union of Right-Wing Parties to create Yamina.
To pursue her Likud-related ambitions, Shaked apparently enlisted journalists, politicians and aides, and sent envoys to the prime minister, his wife Sara and their son Yair, hoping to persuade them that she still has much to contribute to Likud – and them.
Ministers, Knesset members and Likud party operatives offered to serve as intermediaries and tried to convince the prime minister to let Shaked return to his party. Some of them like her personally, while others offered their help because they perceive Shaked as an electoral asset.
One of the intermediaries described her as being close to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. “She knows how to influence him. She’s close to him. If she doesn’t control the Justice Ministry, obviously Bibi will go to jail,” he said.
Another of Shaked’s representatives suggested that “only she can get immunity for Bibi. She knows how to explain to the media why immunity is warranted. She has credibility. She isn’t Miri Regev” – a reference to the sports and culture minister, a member of Likud.
Yet another of Shaked’s mediators pledged her “utter loyalty. She will support the prime minister in everything.”
Between 2006 and 2008, when Netanyahu was head of the opposition, Shaked served as his bureau chief. Thereafter, relations between her and the Netanyahus soured, partly because the prime minister suspects she and Bennett leaked documents relating to the “Bibitours” scandal to journalist Raviv Drucker.
The prime minister also suspects that Shaked suggested to Mendelblit that seeking positive media coverage could be seen as a form of graft, an underlying assumption in what are dubbed Cases 2000 and 4000. Channel 12 news reporter Amit Segal revealed tapes in which Michal Peretz, wife of Education Minister Rafi Peretz, quoted Sara Netanyahu as saying Shaked had “sewed up” the cases against her husband.
Shaked says she was a Likud member before the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005; party records show her registering two years later, in July 2007. She was even elected to the Likud central committee before jumping ship for Habayit Hayehudi.
Realizing that Habayit Hayehudi was no springboard to national leadership, Shaked decided to try to return to Likud. She told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth recently that she had decided to go back to private-sector work and to join and work for Likud. But after Netanyahu failed to form a government and another election was scheduled for September, everything changed.
Last Friday Shaked told journalists on the Channel 12 weekend news show that the moment the new election was called, she set out to build a unified, large bloc of the “ideological right wing. That's what I wanted and how I acted.”
Whatever the case, Haaretz knows of five different channels of communications between Shaked and Likud, related to her effort to return to the party.
Meanwhile, a poll conducted by the Likud campaign headquarters gave the party 40 seats if Shaked came back to the fold. Within Likud circles, feelings about her are mixed. Some ministers in the party have called on Netanyahu to forgive her and bring her back; others have told him to forget it.
In early July Shaked was supposed to fly to the United States and Canada for a family vacation. She agonized over whether to go and ultimately decided to exploit the situation to create pressure. Her aides announced that “she wants an answer” before she goes, and if it’s a no, upon coming back, she would be firing pot-shots at Netanyahu from the right.
While still trying to rejoin Likud, meanwhile, Shaked sent conciliatory messages to Sara Netanyahu, who notoriously loathes the former Likudnik and justice minister. Shaked arranged an interview with TV journalist Ofer Hadad, which aired on June 29. Hadad asked about Sara Netanyahu: “What does she have against you? What happened with Sara that made you and Bennett persona non grata?”
Shaked answered that she had filled a "position of trust" on behalf of the prime minister, and anyone who has done so should not talk about him or his family. “I have been by his side for many years, and working by their side, I saw the close, deep tie between them,” she said, of the Netanyahus. “They have a real partnership. That’s the truth.”
The former minister evidently felt that those rather feeble words would appease and overcome the bad blood between them, but the Netanyahus were apparently not wowed.
In fact, the various above-mentioned intermediaries are at odds over whether Netanyahu would really have any interest whatsoever in reintegrating Shaked in Likud. Some think maybe – a small maybe. Others say the rift between them is final and disproves the saying that “Netanyahu would do anything to stay prime minister.”
In any case, upon her return from the vacation, Shaked resumed her efforts to rejoin Likud – which persisted even after the July 21 press conference unveiling her as the chairwoman of Hayamin Hehadash.
One of her aides says she is in the race – with Likud or without it. Naftali Bennett also realizes that Shaked is absolutely locked on target regarding a return to Likud, the moment she can. In reality, he still leads Hayamin Hehadash, now subsumed in Yamina: His decision to vacate the top seat for Shaked was merely a tactical move. Bennett is the one who determined the slate, and controls its organs. And he believes that after the Netanyahu era, Likud will shake off various parties – and in that event, he himself will be ready with a platform of his own, to become a major power on the right.
Shaked denies report: 'Ugly attempt to besmrich me'
Shaked's bureau released the following statement in response to this report: "Despite attempts by various political entities to hurt Yamina, headed by Ayelet Shaked, by means of cheap and untruthful gossip, we are firm in our intention to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu [to the president as a candidate] to form the next government.
"Yamina is stronger than all the attempts to hurt it, and it's important that it remains this way – because only a strong Yamina can continue strengthening Netanyahu, facing the challenges that are still ahead of us. If the statements quoted here were uttered by one person or another, they have nothing to do with Shaked and she was not aware that they were said."
Shaked later issued another response to the report, calling it "an ugly attempt to besmirch me. The statements quoted are indeed very grave, but they have nothing to do with me and were not uttered at my directive. I never spoke to the attorney general about criminal cases, especially not about the Netanyahu cases. I trust that the public is smart enough [not to believe this]."
Meanwhile, Ehud Barak of the Democratic Union blasted Shaked's alleged attempts to rejoin Likud. "This is an obvious attempt to create a bribery deal in order to get into the club of Netanyahu loyalists. This corrupt deal, if it happened, is the swan song of the corrupt who destroy Israeli democracy."
Retired Israeli army general Yair Golan, who has the third spot on the Democratic Union's slate, called on the attorney general to launch a probe into Shaked's contacts with Netanyahu. Golan said that if Shaked made an offer to ensure Netanyahu gets immunity in return for a spot in the Likud, she committed bribery and breach of trust and disrupted legal proceedings.
Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.