Interview'In a unity government, it's very difficult to move at all'

Shunning unity, Shaked says right-wing coalition needed so she can reform courts

Yamina head tells ToI she wants to return to the Justice Ministry but a unity government would prevent her passing legislation to limit the Supreme Court’s power

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Yamina party chairwoman Ayelet Shaked speaks at a Manufacturers Association conference in Tel Aviv, on September 2, 2019. (Flash90)
Yamina party chairwoman Ayelet Shaked speaks at a Manufacturers Association conference in Tel Aviv, on September 2, 2019. (Flash90)

Once considered the Israeli right’s brightest rising star and the subject of numerous profiles with glowing headlines like “The Woman Who Could Be Israel’s Next Leader,” Ayelet Shaked found herself out of the Knesset and out of a job after her New Right party failed to pass the electoral threshold in April’s elections.

Five months later, having been catapulted to the leadership of the newly formed Yamina union of right-wing parties and given a second chance by rare do-over elections, the former justice minister is back on the campaign trail and working hard to prevent a repeat failure.

“We have established a large party that creates unity between the secular ideological right and all of religious Zionism, and we are focused both on values and on other issues that we didn’t focus on last time, like economics,” a tired-sounding Shaked said during an interview with The Times of Israel late Monday night after a grueling day that included keynote addresses at two conferences and a parlor meeting for some 250 English-speaking voters in Beit Shemesh.

Shaked, 39, and her co-leader in the New Right, former education minister Naftali Bennett, split from their religious-nationalist Jewish Home party last December to form the faction, and sought to appeal to right-wing secular voters. The maneuver backfired, leaving them out of the Knesset altogether. The newly formed Union of Right-Wing Parties, which included the Jewish Home, received five seats, down from eight under Bennett.

But after Netanyahu failed to build a governing coalition and new elections were called, Bennett and Shaked threw themselves into rebuilding the right-wing coalition they had abandoned. Despite opposition from the national religious sector’s more conservative quarters (one prominent rabbi publicly asserted that “the complex world of politics is no place” for a woman), polling showed she was the most popular of the candidates to lead the new reunited right. After tough negotiations, Jewish Home leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz stepped aside, allowing Shaked to head the newly formed Yamina (“Rightwards”) alliance.

Pulling the government rightwards

While taking pride in having created a unified bloc of parties to the right of Likud, Shaked, speaking Monday, made no bones about the fact that she and Bennett were at the center of the party, and that they and their approach were a key reason that voters should choose them.

“Our general message is that only we, only our party, really pulls the government right and carries our right wing policy… I started to change the legal system to make it balanced, to turn it more conservative. There are many more things we need to do with the economy in order to turn the economy into a more liberal, free and unbound economy, with trade unions but with less power. More freedom, more competition. There are so many more things to do, and we are also politicians who can implement these things, ” she said of Bennett and herself.

“When Netanyahu established coalitions with left-wing parties, like in 2009 when he sat with Ehud Barak, he released a thousand terrorists, froze building in the West Bank, and gave the Bar Ilan Speech [accepting the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. We then entered politics and changed the reality. We began to move to a discussion of applying [Israeli] sovereignty [over the West Bank] — away from a discussion of a Palestinian state.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, left, and Education Minister Nafatli Bennett announce the establishment of the New Right party at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 29, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Announcing in December that they would be leaving the religious-Zionist party to form the New Right, Bennett (who led the party at the time, but gave up the top spot ahead of September’s elections) and Shaked lamented that they had lost their influence over Netanyahu, and claimed they needed a new political platform to have a real impact. The pair slammed the premier for a series of  policy decisions they denounced as having “strayed from the path of the right.” In so doing, they appeared for the first time to be making a bid to run an election campaign that directly challenged Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Since becoming the head of Yamina, Shaked has clashed with Netanyahu and Likud on a number of occasions, while also saying that her party will nevertheless recommend him to form a new government after September’s Knesset election

Responding to charges made by Likud officials that Yamina is specifically going after the ruling party — and not criticizing Blue and White or Yisrael Beytenu — because it wants to join an eventual coalition without Likud, Shaked hit back in kind.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked, left, during a vote on the 2017-2018 state budget in the Knesset plenum, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“That’s absolute nonsense. If anything, Likud is attacking us. We have never gone after Likud. Likud was campaigning against us but they’ve stopped and it’s good that they’ve stopped. We are constantly attacking [Blue and White chairman Benny] Gantz and [Yisrael Beteynu chairman Avigdor] Liberman,” she said in the interview. “Had Likud continued to campaign against us, it would have proved that they were headed toward forming a government with the left.”

Shaked also insisted that Yamina, while not ruling out a national unity government, was “working to establish a right-wing, and right-wing only, government.”

“We will only recommend Netanyahu [as prime minister] and we will only sit in a government headed by someone on the right,” she said, going on to explain how she believed that the right-wing bloc could reach a 61-seat majority on its own.

“If the right-wing electorate acts responsibly and doesn’t vote for parties that won’t pass the electoral threshold and throw votes away, a right-wing government will be established,” she said without a hint of irony over the fact that that her New Right party did exactly that.

And, she added, “If Yamina doesn’t become a big Knesset faction, Netanyahu will form a government with the left.”

Legal upheaval, again

According to Shaked, a right-wing coalition is needed, among other reasons, so that she can “complete the work she started” in reforming the justice system.

As justice minister from 2015 to earlier this year, Shaked pushed for widespread judicial reform to weaken the powers of the Supreme Court, and had hoped to continue after the election. In the most comprehensive and deep-cutting plan put forward by any of the right-wing parties running in the election, Shaked, before April’s election, promised a “legal upheaval” to dismantle the court’s judicial oversight over the parliament and, at the same time, give the Knesset full power to appoint judges.

Admitting that the issue has not been a key focus of the campaign so far, Shaked told the Times of Israel that it was set to take center stage in the coming days with a series of videos highlighting her plans for the Justice Ministry, which she hopes to return to.

“Yes, I would be very happy to go back,” she said. “If we get enough seats, then absolutely yes.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (R) seen with Supreme Court president Miriam Naor during a Judicial Selection Committee meeting at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Shaked also said that she would demand any coalition agreement include a commitment to pass the so-called “override clause,” which would give the Knesset, by vote of 61 MKs (of the 120), the ability to overturn a Supreme Court decision to strike down Knesset legislation as unconstitutional.

“Yes, we will absolutely include it in coalition agreements but you have to understand that the override bill involves changing a Basic Law and we needed the agreement of every coalition member. Because of that we were not able to do it,” she said.

Despite passing the key ministerial vote during the last government, the bill’s advancement was stalled by disagreements among coalition partners, with Netanyahu accusing Bennett of “pushing the override clause into the garbage can” by demanding it move forward immediately without full coalition support.

“We will include it in the coalition agreements but it will depend on what coalition will be formed,” Shaked said, adding that for that reason, “I don’t think that we will sit in a unity government. In a unity government, it’s very difficult to move anything at all.”

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