Back from the wilderness, Ayelet Shaked faces tough choice on political future
AnalysisNew Right or new start

Back from the wilderness, Ayelet Shaked faces tough choice on political future

With several options, but none perfect, popular former justice minister said set to make decision on whether to stick with Naftali Bennett by end of week

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, June 12, 2019. (Flash90)
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, June 12, 2019. (Flash90)

For the last two weeks, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked has spent her time hiking and relaxing among the towering mountains of the Canadian Rockies.

With her return to Israel on Monday, however, few appeared concerned with where she had been, while everyone seemed to want to know where she was headed.

Technically, Shaked remains co-head of the failed New Right party. But amid a sleepy election campaign that has largely failed to produce the daily drama that was seen before April’s national vote (with the exception of the minor frenzy surrounding former prime minister Ehud Barak’s reentry into the political arena), speculation over Shaked’s future political home has reached heights rivaling even British Columbia’s Mount Robson.

While the former justice minister was posting photos of herself in the stunning landscapes of North America’s largest mountain range, several right-wing parties were battling to entice her into their open arms, in a bid to boost their own electoral chances by adding the popular MK to their lists. Last month, a poll in the Makor Rishon paper found Shaked to be far and away the most popular candidate among national religious to lead a united right-wing party in September’s elections.

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.

פורסם על ידי ‏איילת שקד‏ ב- יום חמישי, 4 ביולי 2019

Shaked herself has been mostly silent, only briefly weighing in when a prominent national religious rabbi objected to her leading a party because of her gender. But most expect that silence to end in the next few days, as she mulls the offers of the various parties courting her.

Last December, ahead of the elections in April, Bennett and Shaked left the Jewish Home party in order to form the New Right, which campaigned to the right of Likud on security issues, while representing what it referred to as a “secular-religious partnership.”

The fledgling party narrowly failed to cross the electoral threshold in the April elections, but with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having failed to cobble together a coalition before the May 30 deadline and initiating snap elections for September, the New Right has been given another opportunity, as have its leaders.

Arriving in Israel Monday evening, Shaked wasted no time in reuniting with co-chair Naftali Bennett, though the meeting produced little concrete results.

Over the next few days, she will hold meetings with her other suitors before announcing a decision on her future by Friday, New Right sources told the Times of Israel.

Bennett and Shaked were fired as ministers by Netanyahu last month, in a move widely seen as designed to prevent them from using their positions to bolster their campaigns for the fall vote. Bennett then announced he would run in the September elections as the leader of the New Right. Shaked, who was noticeably absent from his press conference, later confirmed that she was staying in politics and would run in the new elections, but has not yet said whether she intended to continue with Bennett in the New Right or join another party.

In an attempt to keep her from jumping ship before the deadline for finalizing party slates at the end of August, Bennett has offered Shaked sole chairmanship of the struggling New Right, party sources said last week. According to the offer, Bennett would step down as co-chair and give up his number one slot on the list to Shaked, who would be named as the only party leader, two sources claiming knowledge of the negotiations said.

She has a number of options to choose from: remaining in the New Right, potentially as its sole leader; running with the Union of Right-Wing parties as number two, behind chairman Rafi Peretz; or waiting until the next election, when she will likely be able to run for a spot on Likud’s slate.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (R), and then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked (L), hold a press conference of the New Right party, in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)

Having stood behind Bennett as his trusty No. 2 for the last seven years, the once-rising political star, tipped by some to be a “future leader of Israel,” may find stepping out front to lead the New Right tempting. But it is also a huge risk.

If Shaked were to run with the New Right again, and again fail to make it to the Knesset (especially as its leader), her political capital would likely run out, and with it, her chances of a comeback.

Instead, she may be wooed by the reported offer from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, made up of the Jewish Home party and other factions, to take the No. 2 spot on its slate, but only if she joins without Bennett.

Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich (L) attend a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Israeli parliament on July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The URWP’s leaders, Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, are said to be seeking to separate the two former ministers — with Shaked seen as an electoral asset and Bennett viewed with distaste for leading the move to quit Jewish Home.

Joining the URWP would give Shaked a much better chance of political survival than a risky bid with Bennett and the New Right. She would, however, have to return to the religious-Zionist party with her tail between her legs — tacitly admitting that leaving it was a mistake, and again taking up the same number-two spot that she left just months ago.

Finally, Shaked has also been rumored to consider joining the ruling Likud party, with several of its lawmakers saying she would be welcome. Netanyahu, however, eventually decided against waiving the mandatory three-year qualification period before being able to run for a spot on the party’s Knesset slate.

If Likud were to offer Shaked a place in the top five on its electoral list, she would almost certainly jump on the offer and happily move away from a risky run with Bennett or an unappealing deal with the URWP.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Reports that Netanyahu rejected Shaked due to a veto from his wife, Sara Netanyahu (who is said to harbor a grudge against the MK since she worked at the Prime Minister’s Office more than a decade ago), suggest, however, that this is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.

And with no one in the top Likud echelons wanting a new and popular future competitor for the party leadership, especially with Netanyahu’s reign dependent on legal proceedings in three corruption cases, senior party figures have been more than happy to indulge Ms. Netanyahu’s reported animus.

Whatever her decision, Shaked will need to make up her mind soon. She’s gotten an unexpected second chance, but there may not be a third.

Shalom Yerushalmi, Zman Yisrael‘s chief political analyst, contributed to this report.

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