TEL AVIV (JTA) – From being named Israel’s most influential woman by Forbes to Adolf Hitler comparisons by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ayelet Shaked has seen it all in her intense 10 years in Israeli politics.
For most of this time, Shaked has been seen as the ever-rising right-wing star to be named on every shortlist of potential future prime ministers. Now she faces an election in which polls predict her party, the Jewish Home, will be completely wiped out, failing even to reach the threshold to hold a handful of seats in Israel’s parliament.
In a last ditch attempt to turn the tide, Shaked is now asking forgiveness from her supporters and the “community I love whose heart was broken” after allied with an Arab Islamist party and left and centrist parties last year to overthrow Benjamin Netanyahu and crown Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid as leaders of the Jewish state.
Shaked’s political zigzag, coupled with her determination to challenge Netanyahu’s rule over the right-wing bloc, appears poised to put an end to one of the most original experiments the Israeli political system has seen in years: the attempt by a young, secular woman to die replacing religious, male-dominated leadership of the nation’s pro-settlement, nationalist wing that has been a prominent force in Israeli governments for the past four decades.
After relentless attacks from her former right-wing allies in the Knesset, Shaked defended her decision to join Bennett’s experimental coalition.
“It was only when I saw that there was no other way to form another government and that the alternative was either a fifth election or the current government that I was convinced,” she told Israel Hayom. “And I stand by my choice. This is not easy or easy government and everyone makes concessions. But it was right to set it up and not go to the polls.”
In the volatile world of Israeli politics, Shaked cannot be counted until all the votes are tallied, and even then she could return in a future election – one that could happen quickly given the ongoing stalemate that followed that election, the fifth in three years, is predicted . Netanyahu, who sees Shaked could be a useful ally in forming a coalition, has reportedly expressed regret at having marginalized them. But for many Shaked supporters, the politician who was once a sign of generational change and rejuvenation has become synonymous with opportunistic betrayal, at least for now.
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Natain Feigin, from the central Israeli city of Modiin, recalled being inspired after hearing Shaked speak at a memorial service for a former party leader. “She had tears in her eyes,” he said. “I was moved to discover a real politician and I was sure that she had the potential to be another Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher.”
But he was dismayed by Shaked’s decision to join the anti-Netanyahu coalition last year, citing this as a key reason for abandoning them in the upcoming elections.
“Whatever her reasons for her political flip-flack, I have a relationship with her now as I do with all politicians,” Feigin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, using a Hebrew term for an acrobatic flip. “I’m very disappointed. In my eyes, she was more sincere and had more real values.”
Feigin is far from alone in this. A recent poll by Israel’s Channel 13 showed that 58% think Shaked should retire from politics, while just 17% said she should run.
Shaked did not respond to requests for comment from JTA. But her allies in her party say they haven’t given up the chance for forgiveness.
“Ayelet Shaked has emerged as one of the most effective right-wing policymakers over the past decade, and there are many potential voters looking for her to continue her work in the next Knesset,” said Jeremy Saltan, a candidate for the Knesset Jewish Heim’s party list for the Knesset, JTA said. Shaked, he added, “has promoted right-wing politics in every government she’s been a part of, including this one.”
Shaked’s political career has been shaped, for better or for worse, by Netanyahu. She began as his office manager from 2006 to 2008, then broke with him and moved further to the right, joining Naftali Bennett’s religious Zionist Jewish Home Party in 2012, becoming its only female secular member. The following year, at the age of 36, Shaked became a household name when she was elected Member of the Knesset for the party.
Just two years later, after the 2015 election, Shaked was appointed justice minister in the new Netanyahu government – a remarkable position for a relative newcomer. During that time, she made a huge impact on Israeli society, gaining popularity among right-wing voters for her support for expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank while making enemies in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Much like Donald Trump supporters in the United States and conservative Americans, Shaked believes the key to shifting power to the right lies in the reconfiguration of the judiciary, which she says has been skewed toward the liberal side. Shaked became known for her attacks on Israel’s Supreme Court, which she described as “the most powerful political actor”.
“Her claim to fame was the Justice Department, where she was quite successful. She took a very strong anti-court line, adding conservative judges. She was also quite brutal when it came to refugees and non-Jewish residents of Israel,” said Gideon Rahat, Chair of the Department of Political Science at Ben-Gurion University. “Ideologically, she did her best and quite well.”
While her “judicial revolution” did not achieve all of her goals, such as removing the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight of the Knesset, Shaked appointed over 300 conservative judges and presided over six Supreme Court nominations, making her mark on the Justice left system for years to come.
“A year ago I decided to change the face of the Supreme Court by appointing four judges. Today that ends with the appointment of two more,” Shaked said in 2018 after the Judiciary Selection Committee named two of their Supreme Court nominees. “They are part of a process that returns the court to its basic function: to interpret the norms that Parliament decides not to replace.”
Her 2019 election campaign – “Shaken will defeat the High Court of Justice” – was praised by the right and widely criticized by the opposition as anti-democratic and dangerous. But while she effortlessly maintained her place in government, other forces worked against her.
“On the one hand, she is talented. In 10 years, she has done what many politicians would not have been able to do in 50 years,” said Rahat, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a leading nonpartisan political think tank. “But on the other hand, there were two obstacles she couldn’t overcome, namely Netanyahu’s monopoly on the right and her identity politics (secular, Tel Aviv right-wing woman) that really didn’t work for her.”
As Shaked’s star rose, the rift between her and Netanyahu deepened, and according to Israeli press reports, Netanyahu’s wife Sara finally decided that “Shaked will not be in the Likud. Period.”
In an interview with JTA, Netanyahu’s former media adviser Aviv Bushinsky called Shaked “the most tragic story” in Israeli politics today.
“She was a very strong character, especially as a woman, and could have been a leader of the Likud if only she made the right decisions,” he said.
According to Bushinsky, one of her key mistakes was being “too loyal” to Bennett, whom she supported until he became prime minister, only to retire from politics a year later when his government collapsed in June of that year.
Since then, Shaked has struggled to convince her constituents, as well as the right-wing bloc supporting Netanyahu, that “she has returned to the right,” as she put it last week.
On September 27, Shaked tweeted her reaction to the Italian elections that elected Giorgia Meloni, a right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ politician, to be the presumptive prime minister.
“Congratulations to the new Prime Minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni. Just as the far right won in Italy, it is winning in Israel, proving that a woman can do anything,” Shaked tweeted.
But it may be too late for the forgiveness of the Israeli right. Elections are coming up and voters don’t seem inclined to give Shaked a second chance. A poll released Sunday shows their poll is well below the 3.5% threshold needed to enter government, not much higher than that of the cost-of-living party led by a 20-year-old TikTok star, Hadar Muchtar, who is also young to be elected.
“I don’t think asking for forgiveness will help her, but she has nothing to lose. If the polls a day before the election show she is still around 2%, she will give up, mainly to save her name and not be the one responsible for wasting votes for the right,” said Bushinsky.
Shaked’s last hope for political survival once again appears to lie with Netanyahu. If the election is close and Shaked turns out to be Netanyahu’s spoiler by costing the right wing a decent amount of votes (since Israel doesn’t count votes going to a party that doesn’t cross the threshold), he could offer her a last minute deal.
“Netanyahu is very instrumental in his politics,” Bushinsky said. “If Shaked can deliver a majority for him, all personal animosity will be forgotten and she will be a star.”