Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s New Justice Minister, Shrugs Off Critics in Her Path – Jodi Rudoren/NYTimes.com
JERUSALEM — She has been called the Michele Bachmann of Israeli politics, a nod to their shared far-right ideology and striking appearance. She was assigned a bodyguard after a social media post was made to show her wearing a Nazi uniform and accused her of promoting Palestinian genocide. She was belittled by a former minister as the most prominent politician “who could star in a calendar hanging in garages,” prompting even ardent critics to rush to her defense.
All that, in less than a week, garnered a this-too-shall-pass shrug from Ayelet Shaked, who was sworn in on Thursday as Israel’s justice minister — the most contentious appointment in a contentious new government.
Ms. Shaked said her best friend has described her as a “robot,” and her husband calls her “the computer” because of her methodical approach.
“They say that I’m very calculated and not very sensitive — that a regular, average person, there are many things that bother them, and I don’t see or feel it,” Ms. Shaked explained in an interview, her first since her recent rocket rise. “If you get into emotions, then it disturbs your work. Sometimes you focus on what’s less important and not the main thing.”
For Ms. Shaked, a former computer engineer, the main thing is “to strengthen the Jewish identity” of Israel, “to have a democratic, Jewish, strong state.”
That translates, in policy terms, into promoting Israeli annexation of most of the occupied West Bank and ousting African asylum-seekers. It means curtailing the power of the Supreme Court, giving politicians more sway over judicial appointments and prohibiting foreign funding of advocacy groups — which could put the main internal critics of Israeli actions out of business. And it entails a “nationality bill” that many see as disenfranchising Israel’s Arab minority, about 20 percent of the population.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian leader among the throngs who fulminated over Ms. Shaked’s new role, said it “is not only a threat to peace and security, but generates a culture of hate and lawlessness.”
Ms. Shaked turned 39 on May 7, the same day her Jewish Home party signed an agreement securing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth term, albeit with a precarious single-seat parliamentary majority. First elected two years ago, she is now poised to head a top ministry as well as the committee that controls legislation, with a seat in the secret security cabinet.
To call her a lightning rod seems an understatement. But unlike other headline-grabbing, flame-throwing politicians, Ms. Shaked is disciplined, a doer.
She answers questions in concise sentences rather than unspooling stories in a conversational style, and said she has been schooled by Mr. Netanyahu to “bridge” from an interviewer’s interest to her own talking points. A secular woman who placed first in the primaries of a predominantly religious party, Ms. Shaked has built pragmatic relations across sectors. She is a quick study, though critics say that she has a simplistic approach to complex problems.
“Even though I can’t agree with most of what she thinks and what she says, she is doing her job very well,” said Oded Ben-Ami, host of a television talk show on which she has appeared frequently. He invoked the Hebrew phrase “mishna sdura,” agenda-driven behavior, explaining: “There is a very clear order in the things she is talking about.”
Ms. Shaked still lives in the Bavli neighborhood of Tel Aviv where she grew up. Her mother, a Bible teacher, voted for center-left parties, and her father, an accountant of Iraqi descent who was born in Iran, for the right-leaning Likud. Ms. Shaked dates her own political awakening to age 8, when she admired the hawkish Yitzhak Shamir in a televised debate.
She danced ballet, was active in the Scouts and excelled at math. It was as an instructor in the army’s Golani Brigade that she grew close to the religious-Zionist settlers who form the core of her constituency today. Serving in Hebron, one of the most contested areas of the West Bank, cemented her stance on the right, she said. “I just realized there will not be a solution right now” to the Palestinian conflict.
Ms. Shaked later married a fighter pilot, whom she asked not be identified because he still works for the military as a civilian instructor. She has proudly posted to Twitter a photo of his F-16 in an Independence Day air show, and on Facebook has posted pictures of herself hiking with her son, who is 10, and daughter, 8.
Erez Eshel, who met Ms. Shaked at Tel Aviv University, where she helped elect him to the student council, said she “is a person not of words, but of hard work.” He recalled going to see her during Israel’s 1999 election campaign, when he became disillusioned while working for Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.
“She said, ‘Erez, don’t talk, let’s do action,’ and we simply went out and removed all the signs of the Labor Party from the streets of Tel Aviv. From 11 until 4 o’clock in the morning,” said Mr. Eshel, who now runs youth leadership academies.
In 2006, Ms. Shaked went to work for Mr. Netanyahu, then the leader of the opposition and, as she put it, “in the political desert.” There she helped hire Naftali Bennett, her future political partner. They broke with Mr. Netanyahu and started My Israel, an online movement that stopped a bank from making a deal with Palestinian investors; vilified an actor who refused to perform in a settlement; published grisly pictures of a family killed in a terrorist attack; and challenged what Ms. Shaked saw as the news media’s leftist bias.
In 2012, Ms. Shaked helped plot Mr. Bennett’s coup to turn the old National-Religious Party into the Jewish Home. When they entered Parliament the next year, despite her freshman status, he made her head of the faction and of a committee to handle the hot-button issue of drafting more ultra-Orthodox men into the military.
“What she’s very good at is tackling delicate issues where she’s in the center of opposing parties and a lot of emotion, and she sort of dismantles it on a very analytical level,” Mr. Bennett said. “The public views her as way more radical than she is.”
A flash point came last June, when Ms. Shaked posted on Facebook a never-published article by a settler activist who had died. It described the entire Palestinian people as “the enemy,” called youths who become “martyrs” while attacking Israelis “snakes” and said their mothers should “go to hell” with them.
“It was a mistake,” Ms. Shaked said in the interview, a day before her swearing-in. “I’m doing a lot of mistakes, like every human being.”
She declined to lay out her agenda as justice minister, saying, “First I want to enter the office, and then talk about my plans.” Before that, she is hiring: She told her current aide that she needs a personal assistant, someone who can drop off dry cleaning, but wanted to make sure that was allowed.
Upon realizing that she would be photographed, Ms. Shaked ducked into the bathroom of her tiny Parliament office to put on eyeliner and lip gloss. She later took a call from the coalition chairman, and lit into him when he said he had given away a committee seat she wanted for the Jewish Home.
“How can you change something like that without letting me know?” Ms. Shaked demanded. When he said it was too late and he was too busy to meet, she shot back: “You’ll just have to work back and change it.”
Returning to the interview, perhaps unable to maneuver her signature “bridge,” Ms. Shaked asked to be asked about Arab citizens. She said they “should be an integrated part of the Israeli society,” denied they face discrimination and said more spots should be created for them to do national service in lieu of the military.
She brushed off attention to her attractiveness — a newspaper recently said guests at a spa were disappointed she did not don a bathing suit — as “a bit of chauvinism, a bit of sexism” that “doesn’t matter in the end.” She said the biggest shock of public life was “the volume of the hatred” from what she dismissed as “the radical left.”
Her approach was shaped in part by the author Ayn Rand. ““The fact that sometimes you think differently than others,” she explained, “but you still need to insist on your views, although you are being accused.”