With her movie-star good looks and a meteoric, polarizing rise through the ranks in Israeli politics, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is a force to be reckoned with. She is a founding member with Naftali Bennett of the newly formed Hayamin Hehadash, the New Right party—which, unlike the Likud, opposes a demilitarized Palestinian state, and yet, unlike the religious Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, is open to compromise on non-Orthodox conversions, egalitarian prayer at the Wall, and other contentious religion and state issues. That puts her in a position to attract enough religious and secular votes to become an undisputed kingmaker in any coalition.
While there is no question that the New Right party wants to strengthen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not replace him in this election cycle, discussion of what comes after him is never far from the surface. Speaking at an “Outlook 2019” conference run by the financial newspaper Calcalist in Tel Aviv in December, Shaked offered the party’s official comment: “The next prime minister will be Netanyahu, and we definitely want to be partners in his coalition.” But she added, “My assumption is that this will be Netanyahu’s last term. He’s not all that young.”
Many in Israel would agree. Even before the recent uproar over Netanyahu’s partnership with the Kahanist-linked Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, the media-driven corruption scandals and Netanyahu’s lip service to a two-state solution have eroded the legendary prime minister’s support among even his staunchest fans. While many on the Left have done whatever they can to push out the prime minister, they would do well to peer over his shoulder at those lining up to replace him.
Shaked has modestly stated that for now her only ambition is to retain her position in the Justice Ministry, but she is doubtless waiting in line. She became justice minister only two years after being elected to the Knesset for the religious-Zionist right-wing Habayit Hayehudi in 2013. She has never shied away from controversy or from aggressively pursuing her agenda, which includes defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, opposing a two-state solution and weaning the Supreme Court away from its perceived left-wing activism.
Accomplishing this agenda will not be easy. Shaked’s enemies have reveled in portraying her as the ultimate anti-Palestinian racist, highlighting quotes such as “The soldiers who arrested the murderers of the Fogel family, I admire them for not shooting them in the head. I admire them.” (The terrorists in question, who beheaded a three-month-old baby, were widely excoriated, and many shared her view, myself included.) Her party was criticized—somewhat more justly—for targeting a real estate coalition in Jerusalem backed by Bank Leumi because it had a Palestinian investor, until the bank withdrew its support. (A scandal involving an alleged sex-for-judgeship payoff has also been unfairly laid at her doorstep.)
Aside from leftist attacks, she has suffered from heavy-handed misogyny. Joseph Paritzky, a former cabinet minister, wrote on Facebook, “Finally we have a justice minister worthy of being featured on a calendar in an auto repair shop.” He went further on Israeli radio, telling Radio Darom, “She is very beautiful…like many of the Reich’s women.”
Politics aside, in many ways Shaked is a poster girl for the modern Israeli woman. The granddaughter of an Iraqi single mother who fled persecution on her father’s side, and of Ashkenazi Jews on her mother’s side who emigrated from Romania in the First Aliyah in the late 19th century, Shaked credits her turn to the right to a debate between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir she saw on television when she was eight. (She found Shamir more persuasive.) Her true political awakening came in the army, when she served as a non-commissioned officer of education in the Golani Brigade, where she connected with members of the religious-Zionist public even as her friends were marching for the Left.
Since becoming justice minister in 2015, Yediot Aharonot reported, Shaked has appointed or advanced 330 judges and registrars at various levels—nearly a third of the country’s total, including six Supreme Court justices. Four of these are considered conservative, which, to most Israelis, means they are less activist, and thus less likely to judicially block laws passed by the Knesset. She has said she is “proud to say that there is more room now for other opinions, which are proudly on display.” That statement was quickly denounced by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who asserted that “Israel’s legal system has no right-wing or left-wing judges; there are no judges who are consistently conservative and none who are consistently activist.”
Actually, many in the Israeli public, myself included, have watched in dismay as the Supreme Court interfered with the deportation of terrorist inciters, delayed home demolitions of convicted terrorists and temporarily halted deportations of African illegal immigrants. Most recently, the court overturned the Ministry of Public Security’s decision to bar the entry of BDS activist Lara Alqasem. And looming on the horizon are the many appeals to overturn the very popular basic law defining Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Erosion of confidence in the Supreme Court among the Jewish Israeli public has been steady, dropping from 80 percent approval in 2000 to only 49 percent in 2017, according to Arie Ratner of Haifa University. Shaked has been trying to rectify this. “In the past there were sections [of the population] who felt that the High Court didn’t represent them,” Shaked told Yediot Aharonot recently. “Today it represents everyone.” Her running mate, Bennett, says she has “carried out an unprecedented revolution in the judicial system, and in the opinion of many, including myself, she is the best justice minister Israel has ever had.” Shaked may be waiting demurely for the opportunity to unfurl her wings, but when she does, no one should be surprised at how high she flies.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem.