When Ayelet Shaked was eight years old, she watched a television debate between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir in her home in north Tel Aviv, traditionally the bastion of Israel’s secular left.

This was in 1984, give or take a year. She remembers disliking Peres, the leader of Labor, and feeling sympathy with Shamir of the Likud. This is her first political memory.

By ninth grade, she was playing Likud in mock elections at her high school. She won.

Today Shaked (pronounced shah-KED) is 36 and a top member of the Jewish Home party, one of the biggest surprises of Israel’s current election campaign. Polls show the party — the latest incarnation of the old and currently moribund National Religious Party of Orthodox Zionism and the settler movement — winning as many as 13 seats this time, making it potentially the third-largest faction in the Knesset and a likely coalition partner.

The party’s success is due in large part to its new leader, Naftali Bennett, a young, charismatic former officer who served in one of the military’s best units — the same commando outfit that produced Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak — and who also made a great deal of money in high-tech business. The party has played up both aspects of his biography, and the combination of militarism and capitalism has proved an effective draw.

Bennett does not only want to win religious votes: He wants to bring the ideology of the religious settlement movement even closer to the heart of mainstream politics. Ayelet Shaked is a key part of that plan.

Shaked came in second in Jewish Home’s primaries and is fifth on its Knesset slate. But she is, in a first for the religious party, not Orthodox. A veteran of nationalist PR campaigns and a former aide to Netanyahu, Shaked — young, savvy, and a fluent conveyor of the Israeli right’s ideology presented as pragmatism — is certain to be a visible member of the next Knesset.

Her unique presence on the Jewish Home list means several things. It marks the victory of Bennett’s strategy of “opening the ranks,” in Shaked’s words: moving away from relying on the support of religious Zionists and winning over traditional and secular voters. If the polls are right, that strategy seems to be working.

‘The Likud is like a bus full of right-wingers whose driver wants to turn left,’ Shaked says

But it is also indicative of a broader trend, one that began in 1967, when the National Religious Party (NRP) and religious Zionism underwent a fundamental change. Until then, religious Zionist politicians partnered with the secular Zionists of the Labor movement and focused on preserving Jewish values and ethical principles. They enacted a law, for example, that enshrined in modern legislation the biblical prohibition against withholding a worker’s wages.

After the 1967 war, however, many in the religious Zionist camp embraced the idea that the newly captured territories were proof of the advent of a messianic era and that settling them was the central tenet of Jewish law. They saw Judaism and the settlement project as one and the same, and religious Zionism became centered on land, ethnicity and force. Ethical concerns that would have impeded this change — like the idea of equal human rights — were marginalized after 1967, along with the old moderates of the NRP.

Shaked (left) says the war with the Arab world is now 'over the Jewish soul, our staying power, our understanding of why we’re here' (Courtesy of Jewish Home/Ayelet Shaked)

Shaked (left) says the war with the Arab world is now ‘over the Jewish soul, our staying power, our understanding of why we’re here’ (Courtesy of Jewish Home/Ayelet Shaked)

“Judaism has swallowed nationalism whole, as if a snake had swallowed a mongoose and roughly taken its shape,” the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg wrote of the post-1967 changes in “The Accidental Empire,” his history of the settlement movement.

It would be unthinkable for a candidate in the party of religious Zionism to be a religious Jew of dovish political views. A secular rightist, on the other hand, can fit in with ease. This is because the central pillar of religious Zionism is not the observance of Jewish law but the sanctity of territory and settlements.

“My ideals and principles are identical to those of religious Zionism, in terms of political and social issues,” Shaked said in a recent interview in Jerusalem.

Shaked got her start in politics as an aide to Netanyahu in 2006, when he stood at the head of a withered Likud faction in opposition to the centrist government of prime minister Ehud Olmert.

“He was an unwanted opposition leader. No one thought he’d be prime minister except me, pretty much,” Shaked said.

But then came the war with Hezbollah that summer. Olmert’s fortunes plummeted and Netanyahu’s revived.

The war, Shaked said, “changed the whole picture.” Naftali Bennett, who had served and returned “shocked,” she said, by the way it was mishandled, joined shortly thereafter as Netanyahu’s bureau chief.

A year and a half later, however, both Shaked and Bennett left abruptly. Neither has publicly explained why, but there were reports at the time of clashes between Bennett and Netanyahu, and of unwelcome meddling in the bureau by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. Shaked would say only that she “felt there was no longer any point in being there.”

Shaked and Bennett went on to found an advocacy group called My Israel, which pushes a right-wing variant of Zionism online and in the media, before moving to politics in the Jewish Home party. The move, engineered in part by Avichai Ronsky, a settler leader and the former chief rabbi of the IDF, was based on the idea that the religious right needed to be reinvigorated and that this must include cooperation with Israelis who are not Orthodox.

“We thought that the Jewish Home needed to include traditional and secular Jews, and broadcast the values of religious Zionism and tradition to the whole people of Israel,” Shaked said.

Naftali Bennett speaks in Jerusalem on December 23, 2012 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Naftali Bennett speaks in Jerusalem on December 23, 2012 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The new approach would also sideline the last vestiges of the old National Religious Party in favor of a more energetic version even less beholden to democratic rule and willing to toy publicly with explosive ideas — like saying, as Bennett did on camera last Thursday, that he would disobey an order to evacuate a settlement and suggesting such an order was illegal.

That position threatens the integrity of the military, and would mean a democratic Israeli majority would be unable to set its own borders should it choose to do so. The effort to promote the idea is part of the ongoing attempt by some proponents of the settler movement, including several prominent members of the Likud, to undermine the arms of Israel’s democracy that could threaten the settlements – chiefly the army and the Supreme Court.

Bennett later reversed himself and called on soldiers to obey orders. But he gave no explanation for his original comment, leaving onlookers with the impression that he had expressed his real opinion because of inexperience and backtracked out of expedience.

The Likud seized on the comment as an effective avenue of attack against its rival for rightist voters, and Netanyahu slammed Bennett personally. But that criticism was complicated by the fact that at least three members of the Likud’s current list have agreed publicly in the past with Bennett’s original sentiment.

“Naftali clarified that he opposes the evacuation of Jewish or Arab communities, and that he will do everything to prevent that from happening,” Shaked said in response to the furor over Bennett’s comment. “Despite this, a soldier must obey his commander’s orders.”

There is more to the Jewish Home platform than the issues of Palestinians and settlements. The party places a broader emphasis on “Jewish identity,” Shaked said: Jewish Home believes that “our enemies have learned that they will not defeat us with war or terror. It doesn’t work anymore. The war is now over the Jewish soul, our staying power, our understanding of why we’re here, and our connection to tradition.”

‘Today everyone understands there won’t be peace. There isn’t anyone to talk to. We have to manage things more or less, but focus on internal affairs’

The platform advocates more Jewish content in secular schools. It wants religious Zionist rabbis to take over the chief rabbinate, currently controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, in order to make the institution more welcoming to secular Israelis forced by law to use its services for marriage, divorce and burial. It is pushing a plan that would see land in the Negev and Galilee granted to army veterans and policies that would lower housing prices.

But most of those voting for Jewish Home will be drawn by the political vision it offers, one untainted by the practical considerations of Likud, which had to compromise to govern and which evinced support — albeit through visibly clenched teeth — for a Palestinian state in the face of international pressure in 2009.

The Likud’s list is now populated with many representatives no less hardline than those of Jewish Home, Shaked acknowledges. But Netanyahu could still pull policy in the wrong direction.

“The Likud is like a bus full of right-wingers whose driver wants to turn left,” she said.

Jewish Home has a political plan: Israel should annex most of the West Bank, the largely rural regions known collectively as Area C, home to all 350,000 Israeli settlers and a number of Palestinians thought to be between 100,000 and 150,000. Area C includes 61 percent of the territory.

Enacting the plan would mean leave a growing Palestinian population currently numbering about two million in the cities of the West Bank without political rights, living in enclaves surrounded by Israeli territory and expanding settlements. It would also mean the collapse of Israel’s already tenuous international relations.

Shaked acknowledges that the plan is effectively unworkable “at present” because of international opposition. In government, Jewish Home is likely to simply ensure the continuation of the status quo in the West Bank, as the Likud has done.

“The matter of the Palestinians, in my opinion, is not an issue any longer,” she said. “Today everyone understands that there won’t be peace. There isn’t anyone to talk to. We have to manage things more or less, but focus on internal affairs.”

The ideology of the right finds more and more Israelis willing to listen largely because the right’s warnings that evacuating territory would lead to more attacks against Israel were proven correct.

“Today there is a Palestinian state in Gaza which is ruled by a terror organization, and we see that they’re firing rockets at the entire State of Israel from the state they currently have. We don’t want it to happen in Judea and Samaria,” Shaked said. A solid majority of Israelis would sign off on that statement, including many affiliated with the center and left.

‘The left and the media tend to make a big deal out of international isolation, and it’s really not that bad’

In large part, though, the explanations citing Israel’s security serve the same purpose as Shaked does — they are meant to sell religious settlement ideology to secular voters. Jewish Home believes the West Bank should belong to Israel forever even in the absence of security concerns, as Shaked acknowledges: “The basis of everything is that we’re here by the force of our right, and not by the right of force,” she said, quoting Menachem Begin.

But the party realizes it must be “pragmatic,” she said: It wants to annex only the majority of the West Bank, not the cities home to millions of Palestinians. “I don’t want to run their lives,” she said. Palestinians will be allowed to move freely, she said, and will have “autonomy.” If they want their own state, she thinks, they can look east: “If they want to realize their national rights, they should do so in Jordan.”

Shaked believes there is no crisis in ties with the United States, and no need to be concerned by the deterioration of Israel’s international standing.

Reports of Israel’s isolation are “exaggerated,” Shaked said: “The left and the media tend to make a big deal out of international isolation, and it’s really not that bad. Ties with the Americans are very important — and they’re very strong. The US gave us more security aid in past years more than it ever had before. It was the closest cooperation in years.” In other words, the US might criticize Israel on occasion but can be counted on for support even if Israel continues its current policies. This is a prevalent belief on the right.

Israel should pursue the policies it wants without taking undue notice of international opinion, she said, because the rest of the world does not understand the region in which Israel finds itself, its security predicaments or the nature of its neighbors.

“Obama wanted to get rid of Mubarak, and got the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said. “The example of Egypt is a good one that shows that the countries of Europe and the United States behaved with stupidity — they simply don’t understand the Middle East.”

“Here in the Middle East we understand what’s good for us, and we have to do first of all what’s right for us,” she said.

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This is the third in a series of profiles of political players leading up to Israel’s national election on January 22, 2013. The first can be found here, and the second here.