Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday she had complete confidence in the attorney general, and was sure he would make the right decision regarding a possible announcement of plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the April 9 elections.
Netanyahu has argued that it would skew democracy were Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to announce a decision to indict him in the next two months in one or more of the three corruption probes against him, since any such decision would mean Netanyahu could ask for a hearing to put his case, and this hearing process could not possibly be completed before election day.
But Shaked, asked by Times of Israel editor David Horovitz in a public interview Tuesday night whether she supported the prime minister’s argument, or rather believed Mandelblit need not delay a decision, said she had complete faith in Mandelblit and didn’t want to say anything to interfere with his decision-making process.
“I know the attorney general very well. Our offices are next to each other. We work every day together. I appreciate him and respect him and respect his judgment,” said Shaked. “I don’t want to interfere in his decision. I can sleep well at night when I know that he is the one who has to take this very, very important decision. He’s a very honest person.”
“Whatever he decides, you have faith in?” Horovitz followed up. “Yes,” said Shaked.
Netanyahu has also argued that the media, the opposition and the police are mounting a “witch hunt” against him and relentlessly pushing a “weak” attorney general to indict him. Asked whether, as justice minister, she was troubled by the prime minister’s efforts to criticize and discredit pillars of Israeli democracy, Shaked said mildly, “We live in a democratic country, and in a democracy freedom of speech is for the people and also for the leaders. So our prime minister definitely has freedom of speech. He can criticize the system. It’s part of a strong democracy.”
Nevertheless, as minister of justice, Shaked repeated, she has faith in Mandelblit, in his decision-making, and “in the system.”
Shaked made the comments while addressing 650 English speakers, many of them immigrants, in the first of a series of evenings in Tel Aviv featuring English-language Q&A sessions with Israel’s leading politicians ahead of the April 9 elections, sponsored by The Times of Israel, the Tel Aviv International Salon, and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
Looking to the elections, Shaked said her New Right Party would never sit in a government led by Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, citing his lack of political and diplomatic experience. Shaked’s far-right party would make an unlikely partner for the centrist Gantz; polling projections show a center-left alliance having trouble forming a coalition without help from the right-side of the political spectrum.
Shaked said she had no confidence that Gantz, a political neophyte whom she branded a leftist, could handle the job. Gantz has “no political experience to be prime minister and to juggle Trump and Putin,” Shaked said.
Earlier in the day, Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party, also rejected backing Gantz for prime minister, saying he was “not even in the same league” as Netanyahu. Gantz was head of the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015 and also served as Israel’s military attache to the United States during George W. Bush’s second term. This is his first run at political office.
The New Right was formed by Shaked and Naftali Bennett in December when they broke away from the Jewish Home party. The two said that Bennett would be number 1 on the party slate but they would hold joint leadership. (Shaked acknowledged Tuesday that the New Right name — the party is called HaYamin HeHadash in Hebrew — is a little awkward in English.)
Asked how Israel could retain its Jewish and democratic character if, as she advocates, it expands the West Bank settlement enterprise, Shaked said her party would pursue a policy of pushing to apply Israeli law in Area C in the West Bank, which covers about 60% of the territory, includes all the settlements and is home to at least 100,000 Palestinians. She said this would involve naturalizing those Palestinians, while the Palestinians in Areas A and B could become “part of a federation” with Jordan and Gaza, or some other arrangement short of independent statehood. This position had also previously been a plank of Bennett’s as head of Jewish Home.
“More and more people in the Knesset are starting to talk about this idea,” said Shaked. “Five years ago, only the Jewish Home Party was talking about it, but now the vast majority of the Likud party is also talking about applying Israeli law in Area C.”
Shaked expressed concern that US President Donald Trump would present his peace plan soon after Israel’s April 9 elections but before a new coalition was agreed, which could place pressure on Netanyahu to form a government with more centrist parties such as Gantz’s or Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, rather than a coalition with the right.
Shaked also defended the Nation State law, which has angered minorities in Israel, especially the Druze community. “The nation state law has nothing controversial,” she said. “The debate is about the word ‘equality’ that is not there. The debate is not about the law itself, it’s about what’s missing from the law.”
Still, Shaked acknowledged that the Druze were offended by the law and suggested legislating a new law recognizing the contribution of Druze and other minorities in Israel as a gesture to show the country’s appreciation, but not changing the Nation State Law. “In reality it’s pretty obvious that all the citizens of Israel have total civil equality,” she said.
Asked about her stated commitment to limit the authority of the High Court, Shaked said that she wants to lower the number of MKs required to re-approve Knesset laws struck down by the Court from the current 75 to 61, a simple majority.
Getting 75 Knesset members necessary to overturn a ruling is “an impossibility” in the current political climate, and that would be one of her priorities if she continues as justice minister in the next government, she said.
Limiting the Supreme Court and appointing more conservative judges has been one of Shaked’s most prominent efforts over the past few years. She has appointed more than 300 judges at all levels of the judiciary, about a third of the country’s total. In September, she told Yedioth Ahronoth that the Supreme Court is now more representative of the country as a whole rather than being “just a branch of Meretz,” the dovish left-wing party.
Shaked said Tuesday the Supreme Court should intervene only where laws and government decisions were deeply harmful to human rights or minority rights, but that Israel’s Supreme Court had struck down laws beyond those areas.
Launching the New Right in December, Bennett and Shaked said it would be “a home for religious and secular Israelis, together.” According to a poll from the New Right, about half of the party’s supporters are religious and half are secular, she said Tuesday.
However, Shaked said that her party does not support non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, despite a push for other streams to be recognized.
She did note that the party supports making Orthodox conversions “wider, more open, and easier.”
She also said she had backed the so-called Western Wall compromise, frozen by the coalition, which would have given non-Orthodox streams of Judaism shared formal oversight of the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.
Caroline Glick, an American olah originally from Chicago who is a well-known conservative columnist (Jerusalem Post, Breitbart) and activist, joined Shaked onstage later to answer questions from the audience.
She noted that the party was currently 80 percent women, but they are looking for “a few good men” to join their ranks. She said that they see their main goal as ensuring that the next government coalition keeps Netanyahu to the right.
“Likud, by all polling, is going to form the next government,” Glick said. “The question becomes, what coalition are we going to have? Are we going to have a center-right coalition, or a Likud with the left coalition?”
“When you look at the numbers you understand this is the main question: Who is Netanyahu going to form the government with,” Glick added. “We want to ensure that the government is formed with the right.”