Underrated: Ayelet Shaked

The rising star of Israeli politics

Israel Underrated
Admirably determined: Ayelet Shaked (illustration by Michael Prodger)

If you haven’t yet heard of Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s justice minister, you will soon. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with all her policies, some of which are undeniably hardline. She is quite simply the most charismatic, formidable and ambitious female political leader to have emerged in Israel (or anywhere else, for that matter) for a long time. She hails from the high-tech industries that have transformed the Israeli economy, she is articulate (in English as well as Hebrew), energetic and ruthless. As she’s just 39, she has a long career ahead of her and, barring accidents, will sooner or later be prime minister. Israel hasn’t had a woman in that job since Golda Meir and many people think it’s about time.

So who is Shaked (pronounced “shah-ked”)? Her background is typical for a third-generation Israeli, combining Ashkenazi and Sephardi (her mother’s family came from Russia in the 1880s, her father’s from Iran in the 1950s), liberal and conservative, secular and religious elements. Growing up in Tel Aviv, the most sophisticated and progressive city in the Middle East, she served in the army and — like so many conscripts — moved seamlessly into computer engineering. Promoted to marketing manager for Texas Instruments, she might easily have made a career among the entrepreneurial yet left-leaning Tel Aviv elite. But she had already made Judaism and Zionism the core of her outlook and, while still secular, gravitated to centre-right politics. By the age of 30 she was running the office of Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, the prime minister, and seemed poised for a stellar career in Likud, the dominant party of the Right.

The first sign that this might not happen came in 2010 when, with Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, she launched a new Zionist ginger group, My Israel. Then, in 2012, Shaked demonstrated the boldness that would become her trademark. She left Likud and joined Bennett, who had become leader of Jewish Home. A year later Shaked was elected to the Knesset, where she made a dynamic impression as the only secular woman in a religious party. During the Gaza war in 2014, she caused outrage by sharing an article on Facebook that referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes”. By last year’s general election, Jewish Home had become a key part of the ruling coalition and Netanyahu appointed Shaked to the key portfolio of justice.

In just over a year, she has dominated the headlines on several different issues. Most controversially, she has challenged the Supreme Court, accusing it of usurping the powers of executive and legislature. The court, a bastion of the Israeli liberal establishment, has reined in successive governments of the Right. But when the court recently blocked Netanyahu’s plan to push through the Leviathan offshore gas project — on which the prime minister has staked his reputation — it fell to Shaked to respond. In her view, the court, influenced by the doctrines of its former chief justice Aharon Barak, has cultivated not judicial independence but judicial activism, and she insists that Israel’s constitutional balance now needs to be redressed. She would give the Knesset the right to overrule the court under certain circumstances, though many disagree with her view that a simple majority should be sufficient. She may soon have the chance to reshape the court: five justices, a third of the total, are due to retire.

Shaked has provoked the international community too. She wants to force NGOs that receive most of their funds from “foreign government entities” to be identified as such. Though she insists this is about transparency, her critics claim that she plans to close down such NGOs, which are mainly anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian. She also wants to reintroduce a law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, opposition to which brought down the last coalition. Most controversially, she wants Israel to abandon the two-state solution, annex the borderlands of the West Bank (“Area C”), which are home to 400,000 Jewish settlers, and offer the 90,000 Palestinians there Israeli citizenship. Eventually, she envisages a confederation between the remaining Palestinian territories and Jordan. Both Jews and Palestinians would finally obtain security, prosperity and peace.

Shaked knows such radical ideas won’t gain a hearing in the chancelleries of the West, let alone at the UN. But by outflanking Bibi, who still pays lip service to the two-state solution, she has staked a claim to the leadership of the Right. To a country that feels besieged and unloved, Shaked offers tough love. “We will not commit suicide because of pressure from the international community,” she tells Der Spiegel. “A Palestinian state is not possible at the moment.” She knows that Israelis won’t vote for another Gaza on the West Bank, capable of bombarding Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. She knows that the new, unapologetic Israel of which she is a symbol must use its global economic and cultural success to make its case. And she knows that women never succeed in politics unless they stand up to the men. Her old boss Bibi had better beware.