How Ayelet Shaked Became the Most Powerful Woman in Israeli Politics

Ayelet Shaked’s coronation Sunday as leader of a new alliance of religious, right-wing parties overturns all assumptions regarding female leadership in Israeli political life.

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From Golda Meir to Shulamit Aloni in the last century, to Zehava Galon and Tzipi Livni more recently, every breakthrough by women heading political parties has been made on the secular left side (center-left in Livni’s case) of the political map.

Not coincidentally, these were the same parties that advocated for women’s rights as part of their aspirations for equality and social justice. And feminism, as in most of the world, was an essential part of its liberalism.

So it is stunning for the country to find itself in a place where the only female party leader heading into the September 17 election will be representing one of the country’s most illiberal sectors.

Ayelet Shaked attending a press conference in Ramat Gan, announcing her leadership of Hayamin Hehadash, July 21, 2019.Moti Milrod

Both Shaked and the parties she will lead hold far-right positions on the future of the West Bank and religion and state that horrify many Israelis who call themselves feminists. And yet, as unlikely a female empowerment icon as the former justice minister may be, she has undeniably salvaged the dignity of women in political life today.

Until news of the far-right alliance broke, the political landscape heading into the do-over election was looking particularly dismal for women: Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg was unseated by Nitzan Horowitz; Stav Shaffir lost her leadership bid for the Labor Party and a disenchanted Shelly Yacimovich, one of the party’s former leaders, announced her decision to quit political life; and Livni, after her Hatnuah party was unceremoniously dumped by the Zionist Union in humiliating fashion, wasn’t invited to join the centrist Kahol Lavan headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. And while Orli Levi-Abekasis heads her own centrist party, Gesher, she is playing second fiddle to Labor Party leader Amir Peretz on their alliance’s recently agreed slate.

A campaign poster for Hayamin Hehadash promoting its new leader, Ayelet Shaked, July 21, 2019.Moti Milrod

And then, in the final weeks before the August 1 deadline for party slates to be handed over to the Central Elections Committee, Shaked, 43, blazed past three men. First, she replaced Naftali Bennett as head of Hayamin Hehadash — their right-wing party that features both religious Zionist and secular members — after he led the party to failure in the April election. Now, she has supplanted Habayit Hayehudi head Rabbi Rafi Peretz and National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich as the leading figure in their United Right political alliance.

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Shaked aspires to widen that alliance further. She would like to see smaller and even more extreme parties like Zehut and Otzma Yehudit join her and to help “build one big party like the Republican Party.” (The Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party announced Sunday its intention to unite with the virulently anti-LGBTQ Noam party in the upcoming election, but there is still wriggle room for it to join the larger alliance.)

If Shaked’s dream comes true, it would mean that five religious parties headed by Orthodox men have agreed to line up behind a secular woman — just weeks after prominent right-wing Rabbi Shlomo Aviner declared that “the complicated whirlwind of politics is not for women.” He had been one of several high-profile rabbis to sign a petition urging that Shaked not be crowned leader of the religious-right bloc due to her secularism.

Shattering assumptions

Breaking the mold and defying expectations is nothing new for Shaked, who has shattered assumptions since entering politics alongside Bennett when he became head of Habayit Hayehudi in 2013.

Hayamin Hehadash leader Ayelet Shaked posing for a selfie at a press conference in Ramat Gan, July 21, 2019.Moti Milrod

Initially, Israel’s political pundits didn’t know what to make of her. A young, attractive (and yes, her looks have been an issue), educated, secular woman had never sought the leadership of a right-wing religious party before (Habayit Hayehudi is Hebrew for “Jewish Home”). She was viewed merely as an extension of Bennett, his powerful “work spouse” or aide-de-camp.

In fact, it was Shaked who brought Bennett into political life, not the other way around. A computer engineer by training, she entered political life in 2006 as bureau chief for Benjamin Netanyahu when he was serving as opposition leader in the Knesset. Shaked hired Bennett, who, following combat service and notable success in the high-tech world, had pivoted to politics. The ambitious young activists forged a bond.

As the pair bonded, they fell out with both Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. Both Shaked and Bennett have long refused to comment on the reasons for the feud, but the bitter break and subsequent loathing that Benjamin — and especially Sara — Netanyahu have for Bennett and Shaked is the stuff of legend.

Israelis walking past a Hayamin Hehadash billboard featuring then-leader Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, in Jerusalem, February 20, 2019.Emil Salman

Bennett and Shaked left Netanyahu and in 2010 formed the right-wing online political movement Yisrael Sheli (“My Israel”). Even then, Shaked seemed to aspire to a political future with Likud, the natural home for a right-wing secular woman — successfully running to serve as a member of Likud’s Central Committee in 2012.

A few months later, though, she left the party, partnering with Bennett to reshape Habayit Hayehudi. She entered the Knesset in 2013.

Lawmakers Ayelet Shaked and Tamar Zandberg clashing in the Knesset Finance Committee, November 2014.Olivier Fitoussi

The first inkling that Shaked’s popularity among the religious Zionist community had overcome the “disadvantages” of her gender and secularism was her showing in the party’s 2015 primary: She finished first in an open vote, winning more support than religious men with significant political followings. Any doubt about the reluctance of Orthodox men to see her as a political leader was allayed.

Her star has only risen since. As justice minister between 2015 and 2019, she defied those who scoffed at her non-legal background, and came into office with a clear vision. She solidified her position as a true hero of the far right, winning acclaim for refusing to soft-pedal her views and aspiring to lead a conservative revolt against “too-liberal” courts. In a speech at the Israel Bar Association in 2017, she declared that “Zionism shouldn’t continue, and won’t continue, to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way.”

Her ministry forcefully promoted reforms to change the process in which judges are selected, hoping to shape a judiciary with more conservative and religious judges who are less likely to block or modify laws on the grounds that they violate civil rights.

She played a key role in the development and passage of the controversial nation-state law, asserting that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” She has sponsored and promoted laws that crack down on nongovernmental organizations critical of the Israeli government and military, and beefed up punishment for terrorists. She has also actively sought to deport African asylum seekers from Israel, saying that appellate courts should be denied the authority to grant residency status to asylum seekers, noting that separate schools should be created for the children of asylum seekers. Additionally, she supports the annexation of the Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank.

Then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on a tour of south Tel Aviv on April 2, 2019, to address the issue of asylum seekers in the neighborhood.Nir Keidar

Historic feud

As April’s election approached, and despite what appeared to be clear misgivings, Shaked stood by Bennett as he abandoned Habayit Hayehudi. She joined him in forming Hayamin Hehadash — a move that ended in disaster when they failed to pass the electoral threshold, after failing to craft a message that appealed to either secular or religious right-wing voters.

Both during the campaign and after the election, the satirical TV show “Eretz Nehederet” portrayed her as a disdainful and frustrated partner in a failed marriage, someone standing by her man but desperate to get out.

When the September election was announced after Netanyahu failed to form a government in May, many thought she would indeed get out. Shaked made it clear she was open to offers. By all accounts she was willing, even eager, to abandon Bennett, but that historic feud — specifically, Sara Netanyahu’s enmity toward her — kept the prime minister from giving Shaked what she really craved: a place in the Likud leadership.

Ayelet Shaked attending a National Religious Party conference in June 2012, prior to reshaping the party into Habayit Hayehudi alongside Naftali Bennett.Tomer Appelbaum

She also seemed open to taking the helm of the same Habayit Hayehudi party she and Bennett had abandoned just months earlier. But that party’s new leader, Rafi Peretz, was unwilling to give up his spot, even though the popular Shaked had the potential to draw support.

The clearest sign that Shaked would be the best choice to unite the fractured religious right came in June: The newspaper Makor Rishon surveyed voters who have supported “parties affiliated with religious Zionists in the past and present,” and Shaked came out on top — by far. The poll found that 40.1 percent of respondents said they would vote for Shaked, while only 19 percent said they would support Bennett, 15 percent Smotrich and 14.8 percent Peretz.

It has taken nearly two months, but she has now taken her place at the head of that alliance, proving the point she made in a tweet while vacationing in Canada after Aviner made his sexist statement:

– Ayelet Shaked

שבת שלום מהרוקיז הקנדיים.
רק מזכירה שאישה יכולה לעשות הכל, גם לטייל, גם להיות אמא, גם לעמוד בראש מפלגה, גם בראשות עיר, גם למנכל חברה וגם לעמוד בראש מדינה.

— איילת שקד ayelet shaked (@Ayelet__Shaked) July 5, 2019

“Just a reminder that a woman can do it all,” she tweeted. “She can travel, be a mother, lead a party, head a city, run a company and even become head of state.”

And now Benjamin Netanyahu — the man who didn’t want to see Ayelet Shaked on his Likud slate — must face her as the head of a political alliance that can make or break his chances of forming a coalition, and who clearly aspires to his job.