Report

The New Face of Israel’s Hard Right

The New Face of Israel’s Hard Right

Last summer, thousands of Israelis shared a Facebook post published in Hebrew by little-known right-wing lawmaker Ayelet Shaked.

An excerpt from an unpublished article written by pro-settler Uri Elitzur, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s onetime chief of staff, who passed away in May 2014, the post was published in English translation on a blog on the anti-Zionist website ElectronicIntifada.com. The author of the blog post claimed that the 631-word excerpt called Palestinian children “little snakes” and accused Palestinian mothers of raising their kids to become violent martyrs. And, the blog post said, it read as “a call for genocide” of the Palestinian people.

Shaked, at the time a junior member of the right-wing, nationalist Jewish Home party, quickly defended the post and argued that the translation was unfair, though she later removed the post from her Facebook page.

But the damage was already done. The story was soon picked up by American news outlets, and Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even used the incident as an occasion to describe her politics as no different from the Nazi Party. “What is the difference between this mentality and Hitler’s?” he said.

The episode didn’t end Shaked’s political career. Instead, it immediately raised her public profile — and her popularity among voters who share her skepticism about the intentions of the Palestinians and who fiercely oppose ceding the land necessary to create a Palestinian state.

Her rapid ascent to the highest reaches of the Israeli political system hit a new peak Wednesday, less than a year after that controversy, when the 39-year-old computer engineer and mother of two was given control of Israel’s Justice Ministry. Shaked got the post as part of a desperate last-minute deal that saved Netanyahu from a looming deadline that could have lost him his seat.

Netanyahu, who had six weeks from his March election win to name a coalition government, had only 53 of 120 Knesset seats pledging loyalty to him on Wednesday morning. The nationalist, pro-settler Jewish Home party agreed to offer him the eight seats he needed to secure his prime ministership, but with a few conditions: Shaked would be named to the Justice Ministry, and her colleague, Naftali Bennett, to the Education Ministry. They also gained control of the Ministry of Agriculture and members of the party will also gain positions giving them significant influence over settlement policies.

The deal was far from optimal for Netanyahu, who was pigeonholed into it. Shaked, who in 2012 told the Algemeiner, a New York-based newspaper covering Jewish and Israeli news, that she has identified as right wing since she was only 8 years old, almost makes the prime minister look like a liberal. Her appointment is also sure to further strain Israel’s ties with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which favors the creation of a Palestinian state and has criticized Netanyahu for using divisive language about the Palestinians.

And as Daniel Levy, Middle East director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, put it in a conversation with Foreign Policy, “If you’re an Israeli with any kind of rootedness in liberal or universalist humanitarian tradition, then the thought of your justice minister being Ayelet Shaked and your education minister being Naftali Bennett probably goes beyond your worst nightmares.”

Other Israeli lawmakers agree.

Zionist Union Knesset Member Nachman Shai said Wednesday that giving Shaked the Justice Ministry “would be like appointing a pyromaniac to head the fire department.”

But she still has some backers. An op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post Thursday said despite her lack of legal background, she “is extremely competent.”

A self-described secular Jew, Shaked was raised in a home where she said political debates were rare. Her mother’s ancestors moved from the former Russian Empire and Romania in the 1880s, and her father, an Iraqi Jew, immigrated in the 1950s. Although she advocates for secular policies like mandatory military service for the ultra-Orthodox, her right-wing views were highly influenced by the religious settlers she fought alongside in the Israel Defense Forces.

Shaked was elected to the Knesset in 2013, but her nationalistic reputation preceded her arrival in Israel’s parliament. She worked for Netanyahu from 2006 to 2008 before branching off and eventually forming My Israel, a pro-Zionist extra-parliamentary movement, with Bennett. And she didn’t hesitate to lobby publicly against African migration to Israel, which she claimed posed a threat to the Jewish state.

In an interview with the Forward, she even said asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan were lying about conditions in the home countries they were supposedly running from. “If they are refugees they need to look like refugees in Syria or Iraq with their children and women and their belongings on them,” she said.

Since her election, she has proved a relentless advocate for migrant detention and deportation, and she has fervently supported laws that would enshrine Israel as a legally Jewish state, a view shared by Netanyahu and a large percentage of the Israeli public. A December poll found that 31 percent of Israelis think such a law would promote Israel’s interests. Opponents claim it would undermine Israel’s history of democracy.

Her attitude toward such a law is indicative of her nationalistic and Jewish pride. Levy told FP that by securing her role in the Justice Ministry, Shaked will continue advocating for “building a Jewish state at the expense of building a democracy.”

And when it comes to relationships abroad, Netanyahu’s appointments of far-right politicians certainly won’t please the Obama administration or Israel-supporting Democrats in Congress.

“I just think we will soon see the kind of in-your-face egregious actions and initiatives by this new Israeli government that it will be hard [for Americans] not to comment on,” Levy said.

By naming her chief of the Justice Ministry, Netanyahu also just put the appointment of Israel’s next attorney general in her hands. And if history repeats itself, Shaked is sure to play hardball to secure an Israeli on the right.

The Jewish Home party, Levy said, is intent on “going after the court system, which they feel is an obstacle to them to form Israel from the inside to make it more of an ethnocratic, Jewish state.”

In the same Forward piece, a supporter of Shaked, Ilana Laitman, boasted her party’s Zionist ideals.*

“If you feel like a Jew and you act like a Jew and your ideology is based on Zionism, you can feel at home in this party,” she said.

As for the some 15 percent of Israel’s population that identifies as Muslim? Looks like they’re out of luck.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Correction, May 11, 2015: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to incoming Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked that actually came from one of her supporters. It was Ilana Laitman who told the Forward newspaper that “If you feel like a Jew and you act like a Jew and your ideology is based on Zionism, you can feel at home in this party,” not Shaked herself.