Meet Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s polarizing and powerful Interior minister

Emmanuel Dunand/Pool photo via The Associated Press

Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has crafted an image as a conservative firebrand but garnered a reputation as a diligent executive, says she’s proud to serve in the nation’s newly established government, which in June succeeded in ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power.

“It was a huge challenge to establish this government,” Shaked, 45, said in a sit-down interview with The Hill in Washington, referring to the most diverse coalition in Israel’s history. “There is an ideological right, politicians like myself, and ideological left politicians, and one Arabic party, which is the first time that this happens, really, in Israel.”

In American terms, Shaked is analogous to a far-right Republican reaching consensus on legislative issues with progressive Democrats. She likened it to the challenge President Biden had to overcome to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but for every single legislative action.

“In our coalition, every law, the left and the right need to vote together,” she said.

Such coalition-building could serve Shaked well in the future.

Her previous tenure as Justice Minister, between 2015 and 2019 under Netanyahu’s government, largely garnered respect.

“Back then people were talking about her [as] prime minister material,” said Tal Schneider, political correspondent for the Times of Israel. “She was very efficient, she was a hard worker.”

But her political positions can be described as extreme: she supports the Israeli annexation of the West Bank and expansion of settlements there and rejects the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

“There is no real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should manage the conflict, not solve it,” Shaked told The Hill in between meetings with Jewish groups in New York, Republicans in Congress and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who she’s pushing to allow Israelis to join the U.S.’s visa waiver program

Shaked wields critical authority as Israel’s interior minister, where responsibilities including housing construction, immigration and citizenship are forever entangled in the conflict with Palestinians.

“It’s a very powerful ministry,” she said.  

Shaked is also a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet, an exclusive and select committee of senior officials crafting Israel’s foreign and defense policy.  

She downplays, however, whether her political ambitions include serving as prime minister one day.

“The future, everything is open,” she said dismissively and steered the conversation to her support of the man who now holds the position.

“I think that our Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett is doing a great job … he and I have been partners for many years in Israeli politics … he has a big challenge to be prime minister of Israel. It’s one of the toughest jobs on Earth, and I wish him the best of luck,” she said.

Shaked emphasized her commitment to working with her colleagues. The fragile coalition proclaimed in its formation that its government would focus on the things they could agree on and delay addressing, or even ignore, more polarizing issues — in particular how it comes to dealing with the Palestinians.

“We should focus on what we can do, and not go on adventures that we know that will lead to dead ends,” she said.

On the Palestinian issue, she touts what the Bennett government has instituted over its six months in power: increasing the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, an additional 16,000 from the West Bank and 3,000 for the Gaza Strip, and increased outreach between Israeli officials and the Palestinian National Authority.

When the Biden administration raises concerns with Israel over other practices — such as settlement expansion and demolition of Palestinian homes and structures — Shaked say it’s Israel’s right to decide its own policies.

Also controversial was Israel’s decision in October to label six Palestinian nongovernmental organizations as terror groups. The State Department said it’s reviewing detailed information about Israel’s designation of the group that was provided after Jerusalem announced the decision.

Shaked said offering the findings of alleged terrorist connections was an effort to address seriously the concerns raised by the U.S.

“We were telling them the truth – if it’s not the truth that they want to hear, we prefer to tell them the truth,” she said.

Shaked’s blunt talk has garnered her a reputation as an uncomplicated politician.

“She’s very devoted to politics, she’s not playing games… very disciplined. She makes up her own mind of what her goals are and she is [focused] on the target,” Schneider said.

But Shaked is polarizing and controversial, in scandals both frivolous and significant.

In 2019 she garnered international attention for headlining a satirical campaign ad appearing to promote a high-end perfume called “Fascism” — mocking criticisms from Israel’s liberal parties that her push to stack the judicial branch with conservative judges was undermining its neutrality.

“O.K., I’m writing about this, so it’s effective marketing,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen commented at the time.

But more serious is Shaked’s connections to NSO Group, the Israeli-owned surveillance-software company that has come under U.S. sanctions over allegations its spyware was used by foreign governments in their efforts to target and try and silence dissidents, journalists and activists, as well as spying on other government officials.

Shaked has close ties with NSO Group’s president, whom she describes as her “best friend,” and told The Hill she does not comment on the company itself because of the conflict of interest.

Haaretz reported in April that Shaked had said that NSO Group should be considered for a government contract without mentioning her friendship with its president.

Her office dismissed the report at the time, saying the context of her comments, during a meeting of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, did not require proper disclosure.

Shaked told The Hill that she believes the focus on disagreements between Israel and the U.S. are out of proportion compared to the areas where the two countries cooperate.

“The United States is the best and closest ally of Israel. We need to respect one another and understand that there are differences and to know how to manage those differences and live with that,” she said.

“We have other things in common, many values that are in common, and we should focus on those values.”

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Ayelet Shaked Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israel-Palestinian conflict Jerusalem Joe Biden
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