Israel Pulse

Will a secular woman lead Israel’s religious right?

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Article Summary
If polls show that secular Ayelet Shaked is likely to get the most votes, she might succeed in getting the leadership of the religious right political camp.

Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is a popular figure on the Israeli right, thanks in part to her success in implementing changes in the judicial system, such as appointing conservative judges to the High Court. Thus the failure of her party, the New Right, to meet the vote threshold of four Knesset seats in the April election was a harsh blow to the right-wing camp. It would also ultimately be one of the main reasons for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inability to form a new government. The electoral performance by the New Right and Moshe Feigilin’s Zehut, which also failed to pass the vote threshold, cost the right wing some six mandates.

According to polls conducted before the election for the 21st Knesset, other religious Zionist parties were also not assured of meeting the vote threshold, until the intervention of prime minister Netanyahu, who pushed them to form a joint list, the United Right. The union of religious right-wing parties consisted of HaBayit HaYehudi, headed by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, a brigadier general in the reserves who also served as a combat pilot and later chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces; the National Union, which is headed by Bezalel Smotrich and has a more conservative stance than HaBayit HaYehudi on religion and state and on diplomacy; and Jewish Power, the party of the adherents of the nationalist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Together, as the United Right, they won five mandates.

Shaked, who in the New Right was second to Naftali Bennett, could now be, thanks to her popularity, a secular woman leading the religious right-wing parties. She is, in effect, making this demand as a condition for joining a religious right joint list. 

To get there, she has to navigate three obstacles: one is Bennett, her political partner for many years. The two met to talk on June 19, but he has not agreed to grant her leadership of the New Right. Assuming that Bennett does relinquish his top spot, Shaked would then have to deal with Peretz, who was appointed education minister on June 18. Peretz understands that his base wants Shaked and therefore on June 20 announced that he is prepared to give her the second slot on the list of the union of right-wing parties. As of now, however, he is holding on to the top spot. 

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The other obstacle is that Shaked is secular. One of religious Zionism’s prominent rabbis speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that with all due respect to Shaked and her popularity, it is improper for a secular person to lead the religious-nationalist camp. The rabbi added that although in principle the objection is to any secular person, man or woman, to lead the camp, objection among some of the rabbis is even greater in regard to a secular women. “How can we remove from the first spot a man who was the chief rabbi of the IDF, the head of a yeshiva and a brigadier general in order to put in his place a secular woman, however successful?,” asked the rabbi. 

Surprisingly, Shaked’s bid to head the list already has some noteworthy supporters among senior politicians from the right-wing parties. Former Deputy Defense Minister and Knesset member Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan of HaBayit HaYehudi told Al-Monitor that one of the important measures for deciding who should occupy the first spot on a candidate list is who can produce the most mandates. According to him, “[If] through quality and professional polls it turns out that Ayelet Shaked brings the greatest number of mandates, she’s the one to head the list.”

Ben Dahan also emphasized, however, “Even if she is appointed head of the list, she won’t be the leader of religious Zionism. She won’t be the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi. That’s Rabbi Rafi. It won’t hurt him; he’ll remain the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi. We are talking here about the person who should head the list of several parties in the bloc in order to maximize our seats in the Knesset.”

Ben Dahan's argument is meant to appease those who see Shaked’s secularism as a problem. “This would be a technical bloc. Everyone knows that after the election, at least some of the parties would part ways and create separate parties,” Ben Dahan asserted. “The main goal now is that by means of this connection, we’ll join forces and get more voters, and in the end the right to the right of the Likud would have more power.” 

It appears there won’t be any real opposition in Jewish Power, which is considered more hard-line, to putting Shaked at the top of the list. Itamar Ben Gvir, who currently seems to be the leading candidate of the small party (after being slotted seventh for the April elections), told Al-Monitor that he and his colleagues favor combining with other parties to realize the right’s potential and attract as many votes as possible, including joining with Shaked, for whom he has great respect. 

The National Union is no less determined to form a union of the parties to the right of the Likud. On June 20, the party launched an internet campaign with the slogan “We Run Together Now, We Argue Later.” Smotrich explained, “The divisions among us are important but marginal compared to the heavy responsibility on our shoulders to bring victory to the right in the election. This responsibility requires us to focus on what we have in common, to get over our ego and go together.… I’ll be the first to give up my personal spot so that this joint venture will succeed.’’ Smotrich was speaking about bringing in Shaked to head the list, but he was careful not to say so explicitly in order not to offend Peretz. 

The situation is more complicated when it comes to Peretz. As mentioned, Peretz has declared that he is willing to give Shaked the second slot, and within his party, HaBayit HaYehudi, many argue that it must not reconnect with Bennett and Shaked, who left the party in December 2018 ahead of the April election in part to be free of the rabbis intervening in political decisions. HaBayit HaYehudi has not forgotten this, and at a June 19 party convention, which approved the list for the September election, activists held up signs condemning Bennett and Shaked. 

Who will untie this knot? As happened before the April election, the prime minister is expected to intervene in the upcoming election. The topic was raised in his conversations with Peretz and Smotrich, with Netanyahu making clear that the split in the right in April’s election will not recur in the current election cycle. The estimate is that the Likud’s internal polls, which are considered the best and most accurate, are what will determine whether Shaked indeed emerges as the candidate likely to attract the most votes and in the process establishes the precedent of a secular woman heading the religious right-wing parties.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Danny Zaken is a journalist who works for the Israeli public radio station Kol Israel. Zaken has covered military and security affairs, West Bank settlers and Palestinian topics. He was a Knight Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan and completed the BBC Academy's journalism program. Zaken lecturers on media and journalism at the Hebrew University, the Mandel School and the Interdiscinplinary Center Herzliya. He is the former chair of the Jerusalem Journalists Association.

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