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Israel Featured Item

Ayelet Shaked’s rising star in Israeli politics

  • Paula
It’s been 45 years since Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, resigned from the country’s top job. Often described as the “iron lady” of Israeli politics, she was strong-willed and straight-talking.
by PAULA SLIER | Aug 08, 2019

Founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion called her “the best man in government”. It was the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that finally broke her.

“A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader,” she once said. Weeks of intense public debate and finger pointing as to how and why Israel was caught unawares in October 1973 concluded – while not directly faulting her – that Israel’s hesitation cost the country dearly.

On announcing her resignation Golda, as she was affectionately called, said, “I have reached the end of the road. I cannot carry on any longer.”

A half a century on, and there still hasn’t been a woman quite like Golda to carry on that road.

The reason, in part, is because so few women have risen through Israeli political ranks. Golda might have been Israel’s first (and only) female prime minister, but during the country’s founding years (1948 to 1974), she was also its only female cabinet minister.

Until 1995 – 47 years after Israel’s independence – only five women had served in Israeli cabinets. And, as of January this year, only 18 of the 246 people who served as Israeli cabinet ministers in all of Israel’s history – less than 7% – have been women.

Among those who have served, no woman seems to have been in the right place at the right time to lead the country.

The most promising was possibly Tzipi Livni who, as former foreign and justice minister, was tasked with forming a government in 2009 after her party (Kadima) won the most seats. Unable to do so, the next government was put together by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has remained in power ever since.

That could change. Not in these elections – or even the next – but sometime in the near future. Ayelet Shaked, a 43-year-old mother of two with a background in computer engineering, could not be more different from Golda, the grey-bunned grandmother. Different times call for different leaders.

Two things are remarkable about Shaked.

The first is that a few short weeks ago, her newly formed political party – Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right) – failed to pass the April election threshold. Cast into the wilderness, Shaked was forced to contemplate a future other than politics.

But now, she’s back in the headlines, and there is once again debate about her as a future prime minister. She hasn’t shied away from making her ambitions clear either.

The second is that she is a secular Jewess from Tel Aviv who leads a political bloc representing the traditionally patriarchal orthodox community. Forget the fact that no woman has ever risen to the pinnacle of political power in this sector of the population, Shaked is a secular one to boot.

When Golda ran for the office of Tel Aviv mayor almost 65 years ago, she was boycotted by the National Religious Party, which stated at the time, “Never! Can a woman be a head?! You should appoint a king – a king, not a queen!”

Shaked was recently selected to head the United Right bloc, a fractured alliance of religious, right-wing parties that includes the heir of none other than the NRP, the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party.

What’s remarkable is that until now, every breakthrough by women to head parties in Israel has been on the secular left of the political map. But now, come the 17 September elections, and the only female party leader hails from the far-right and ultra-religious sector.

Add to this the comments by a leading rabbi of the religious Zionist movement, who said last month, “The complicated whirlwind of politics is not for women.” He was one of dozens of high-profile rabbis who came out against allowing Shaked to lead such a union. But the polls suggest that since Shaked took the reins, this bloc is likely to become the third largest in the next government.

Shaked aspires to widen the bloc even further. She would like to see smaller and even more extreme parties, including Otzma Yehudit led by a handful of former followers of the deeply racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, as part of the coalition.

If her dream comes true, it would mean that five religious parties headed by orthodox men have agreed to line up behind a secular woman. Quite remarkable indeed!

Still, for Shaked to realistically have a shot at the premiership, she will need to rejoin Netanyahu’s Likud party, the natural home for a secular right-wing woman, from where she comes.

Shaked joined politics in 2006 as bureau chief for Netanyahu when he was serving as opposition leader in the Knesset (parliament). It was another powerful woman, Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the incumbent prime minister, who stymied her progress on that front.

Shaked has long refused to comment on the reasons for the feud between the two, but the result was a bitter break that saw her leaving the Likud party. In June this year, at a meeting of senior Likud officials, Sara Netanyahu reportedly said, “Ayelet Shaked will not be in Likud. Period.” Likud denied the report.

Shaked has reportedly always been open to coming back. She will need the Likud numbers if she’s ever to make a run for the country’s top office.

There are many in Likud who would welcome her back with open arms. She has a reputation as a hard and efficient worker. As justice minister between 2015 and 2019, her ministry forcefully promoted reforms to change the process by which judges are selected, allowing for those with more conservative and religious views.

She was a key campaigner for the controversial nation-state law that promoted Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, and she has sponsored laws that crack down on non-governmental organisations that criticise the Israeli government.

It’s no easy feat to command Israeli politics. As Golda once said to former American President Richard Nixon, “You are the president of 150 million Americans; I’m the prime minister of six million prime ministers.”

Shaked’s star is rising, but just how far it will go will depend as much on her leadership as on what happens in the Middle East and Israeli political front.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Nathaniel Semel 19 Sep
    Aylet Shaked wants to build bridges.  For that I admire her.  Yamina won 7 seats that's less than what they were hoping for but not bad considering she was with someone who supports forced conversions for Gay and LBGQ members of society.

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