Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s controversial former justice minister and Netanyahu rival, has taken the reins of a new right-wing alliance, threatening the embattled prime minister’s hold on power. 

The new bloc, announced on Sunday, merges Shaked’s New Right party with the United Right. For now, the Otzma Yehudit and libertarian Zehut parties have not joined, but that may change.

Opinion polling shows that a united party under her tutelage would do far better in upcoming September elections than it would under the leadership of her rivals. 

Shaked’s New Right is slated to receive 11 Knesset seats, according to a poll released Thursday, while the Rafi Peretz-led United Right was set to receive only four.

This allowed Shaked to defeat Peretz in the leadership battle. Peretz said the agreement had been reached out of a sense of “national unity and concern for a right-wing government and religious Zionism.” 

The new leadership role presents a remarkable turn of fortunes for Shaked, who hit a low-point when her party was unable to pass the threshold in April elections.

Her ascent threatens the ability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of US President Donald Trump, to form a ruling coalition.

‘Smells like fascism’

Shaked, a secular woman, is the most unlikely of leaders of what is essentially a national-religious alliance.

The 43-year-old from the upscale Bavli neighborhood in Tel Aviv earned a degree in computer science and had previous experience in the private sector as an engineer in a major international high-tech company.

Her husband is a former kibbutz member and fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Despite having all the markings of an elitist of the center left-bloc, Shaked has proven to be the most magnetic and talented leader the Israeli extreme right has ever produced.

Shaked earned her reputation through tireless activism and legislation pandering to her nationalistic base. Among several other successful legislative initiatives, she was one of the original sponsors of the controversial Nation-State bill passed last year, which enshrined in law Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, as well as a law requiring left-wing civil society groups to reveal foreign sources of funding.

Shaked has intentionally and successfully courted controversy throughout her career, going further than most in her inflammatory statements about Palestinians.

In 2014, she endorsed the view that Israel was not only fighting Palestinian terrorists, but the people as a whole, endorsing an article on her Facebook page which said: This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people.

The post, which critics equated with advocating for genocide, has since been deleted.

In an attempt to build on her extremist credentials, the New Right launched a campaign trolling detractors accusing her of totalitarian tendencies by creating a mock advert for a perfume named Fascism.

To me it smells like democracy, Shaked says in the ad, whose tagline Smells like fascism has become notorious in Israeli politics.

Her tenure as minister of justice was particularly notable. Shaked spearheaded a quiet overhaul in the selection process and make-up of the Supreme Court. Considered the liberal bastion of the Israeli political system, its “activist judges” have long raised the ire of Israeli right-wingers.

By altering the selection rules, Shaked managed to get three right-wing Supreme Court Justices confirmed and guaranteed that the court would continue to trend rightwards for the foreseeable future. She has vowed she will not rest until completing what she calls “legal upheaval” to dismantle the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight over the parliament and end its role as the “most powerful political actor,” which she has said is tantamount to a coup.

Her popularity has allowed her to obtain influence with an enviable array of conservative constituencies. The Israeli right-wing has long been split between two camps which coexist uneasily.

The first camp is the moderate national-religious group, which focuses intently on societal religious values and is backed by more moderate and liberal-minded religious voters.

The second camp is the hardline right-wing camp which has been typified by strong support for settlement and virulent racism and homophobia. Shaked’s doctrinaire ideological approach alongside her appeal to younger and more diverse sectors of society has allowed her to find her place as the leader of both camps.

Due to an unconventional background, the former justice minister also appeals to secular right-wingers who normally would not consider voting for a religious party.

Animosity with Netanyahu

The election of Shaked is bad news from the perspective of Prime Minister Netanyahu. While it may solidify the right-wing bloc, there is a long history of animosity between the two.

In 2006, Shaked was hired to run Netanyahu’s office, while he served as head of the opposition. During her tenure, she famously fell afoul of his powerful wife Sarah and was axed in 2008.

When the New Right failed to pass the threshold in the previous elections, Netanyahu believed he had the opportunity to destroy Shaked’s political career once and for all. The former justice minister attempted to seek her political resurrection in Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The prime minister, however, worked assiduously to ensure she was unable to find her place in the ruling party. In his mania to settle a personal feud and prevent a formidable rival from entering the party, Netanyahu deprived the Likud of a sure-fire electoral asset and left the former justice minister smoldering.

Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and her lawyer Yossi Cohem wait for the judge to arrive at the Magistrate’s Court in Jerusalem in June 2019. Photo: AFP

Shaked returned to the New Right and reached an agreement with Bennett that she would now run the party. As the New Right and United Right negotiated a merger, Netanyahu put pressure on the United Right to run independently so as to deprive Shaked of influence.

Netanyahu failed in his attempt to stop the merger and prevent Shaked from taking over. As a result of his failed meddling, the new party and its head do not plan to coordinate their electoral strategy with him. While Netanyahu had pressed Peretz to demand that the new party recommend Netanyahu as prime minister, Shaked has declined to do so.

She seems to delight in toying with the nervous premier, saying that “we will only back Netanyahu if he forms a right-wing government.”

This is the stuff of nightmares for the struggling Netanyahu. Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party are unwilling to form a coalition with Netanyahu if he forms a narrow right-wing government.

Shaked is now refusing to form a government unless it is ideologically doctrinaire. Shaked’s party is likely to receive 11-12 seats, while Liberman looks likely to receive 9-10.

This leaves Netanyahu with no viable options to form a coalition unless the right-wing greatly outperforms the current polls.

Ironically, both Liberman and Shaked are former chiefs of staff for the premier, with whom he parted ways acrimoniously. The personal vendetta with these two powerful players may now prove fatal to Netanyahu’s plans to maintain power and obtain immunity from indictment.

In September, Israeli voters will determine if the longest-lasting Israeli prime minister in history is able to survive the new face of the right.