Israel elections: The fall from grace of Ayelet Shaked, once seen as potential PM

Although her party is currently polling at less than 2% of the vote, Shaked continues to benefit from media coverage and attention that are disproportionate to her actual public standing and support.

 AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN poster of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, this week in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN poster of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, this week in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

She was once touted as the princess of the Israeli Right, a potential successor to Benjamin Netanyahu, a leading candidate to follow in the footsteps of Golda Meir to become the second female prime minister in Israel’s history.

Ayelet Shaked’s telegenic career had all the ingredients of a modern political fairy tale, but 10 years after her promising debut, she is hanging on for her political life, grasping to save herself from downfall.

For the first time in her political career, she is on her own, without Naftali Bennett, her power-couple partner in the past decade. Their collaboration brought Bennett to the top and turned him into a prime minister, but it plunged Shaked to an all-time low. While he basked in the perks of the premiership, she was castigated as a liar and traitor.

Although her party is currently polling at less than 2% of the vote, Shaked continues to benefit from media coverage and attention that are disproportionate to her actual public standing and support. Her meteoric rise and potential fall, her past influence and future significance overwhelm the dry numbers and statistics, and she is bolstered even more by her striking appearance.

At the same time, Shaked’s scramble to survive is also generating a rare bipartisan coalition of malicious joy. The Right celebrates her failure as the ultimate revenge for her so-called deception and defection with Bennett to the leftist, Arab-supported anti-Bibi camp, while many in the Center-Left believe Shaked played a major role in undermining the Bennett-Lapid government and precipitating its collapse.

 Ayelet Shaked, Minister of the Interior, at a cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Ayelet Shaked, Minister of the Interior, at a cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Shaked, indeed, tried to “dance in both weddings” – that is to say, to be part of the Bennett-Lapid government and hold the pivotal role of interior minister, but to stick to the Right politically and thus preserve her popular standing back home. It didn’t work. After Bennett resigned and retired, Shaked was left all alone.

Shaked understood early on that she had taken the wrong turn, and for many months she contemplated reversing course and defecting back to the Right, bringing down Bennett’s government and paving the way for a comeback that could install her on the right-wing throne.

Did Shaked make the right decision?

But while she hemmed and hawed, her Yamina colleague Idit Silman preceded her, stealing her thunder as she quit the coalition and accelerated its inevitable demise. Silman, and not Shaked, was immediately crowned as the new princess of the Likud, joining Amichai Chikli, who was the first Yamina renegade.

Chikli and Silman were rewarded this week for being the brave saviors of the Right. Netanyahu ensured both of them would be placed in realistic slots on the Likud list for the Knesset. This was presented as a reward for their courage, to avoid the perception of it being an illegal quid pro quo.

Shaked could only dream of being so lucky. She scrambled to win a similar ticket and join the club, and dedicated almost three months to attempts to form an alternative Netanyahu government that would avert elections. Her efforts were undercut, however, by her so-called significant other, Bennett, who unilaterally announced his resignation while she was on a plane to Morocco.

Since elections were called, Shaked has been struggling to keep her head above the political water and stay part of the game.

Even though the prospects of her survival are grim, she adamantly rebuffs advice to announce an elegant timeout from politics and to prepare for a fresh start while sitting on the sidelines. She prefers to stick to the political maxim coined by the wily Ariel Sharon: Never take your hands off the wheel.

SHAKED HOPES that the upcoming elections will give her the opportunity to reconcile with her original base and to reclaim her right-wing fame.

Can Shaked be kingmaker?

If the polls are wrong and, by any chance, she does pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, she can be the kingmaker of the next government, the missing piece that completes Netanyahu’s coveted 61-seat majority and blocks any alternative coalition by the Center-Left.

That’s the main reason Shaked dismantled her short-lived alliance with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel this week, just six weeks after they joined forces. Hendel, another displaced right-wing survivor of the Bennett-Lapid government, was previously kicked out of the Benny Gantz-Gideon Sa’ar partnership, and ideologically he and Shaked were a perfect match, holding similar, if not identical, opinions on most issues – except for one small matter, which just happens to be the one that is splitting Israel right down the middle: Bibi Netanyahu.

Hendel achieved political prominence in recent years as an opponent of Netanyahu, while Shaked’s ultimate goal is to reinstate her loyalty to him once again. Originally, she and Hendel agreed on a complicated modus operandi, committing to support only a national-unity government and block any attempts to form a narrow coalition on either side. But the Zionist Spirit Party’s entangled formula collapsed even before it could be tested after the election.

The first signs of disruption appeared at the Jonathan Pollard debacle, in late August, when the former US-Israeli spy publicly endorsed Shaked’s party and retracted it 12 hours later, following strong right-wing disapproval and pressure.

When Pollard walked back his support, he cited Shaked’s refusal to remove Hendel from her list and commit to joining only a right-wing government.

The exact same conditions were presented to Shaked later, in negotiations with her former party Bayit Yehudi. The remnant of the historic National Religious Party has no real political base or support, but it still has a mechanism, controlled by National-Religious wheeler-dealers, many of them affiliated with the Likud and Netanyahu.

Shaked wanted to go back to basics and return to the birthplace of her political career. They demanded total repentance and unequivocal support of Netanyahu as proof of loyalty and remorse. This created an inevitable dilemma with Hendel and the Zionist Spirit’s founding formula.

According to well-informed sources, the former prime minister was maneuvering behind the scenes and sowing the seeds of their separation, aiming to squeeze out Hendel and his partner, Zvi Hauser, and enhance his control over Shaked through his own loyalists.

Once again, Shaked regretted taking the wrong turn and realized that joining forces with Hendel was counterproductive to her final goal. She decided to dismantle their partnership, leading to his dropout announcement.

A few hours after their breakup, which led to a breakthrough in her talks with Bayit Yehudi, she released a video headlined with a theatrical message: “Today I am coming back home.” She fulfilled every requirement in the book, including a confession of the mistakes she made in the Bennett-Lapid government and a distinct commitment to support any government led by Netanyahu.

Her former ally Bennett replied with a public rebuttal and, in a rare public speech, criticized her regrets as a “post-traumatic” reaction to threats and intimidation by Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc. The clash of words between the two reflects how sour their relationship grew during his tenure at the Prime Minister’s Office, but is not necessarily bad for Shaked’s bid to convince right-wing voters of her full contrition.

Her real problem is not Bennett but, rather, Netanyahu. After dividing and conquering her alliance with Hendel, he continued to meddle in her political endeavors by snatching Moshe Saada, a former Justice Ministry official who came out and harshly criticized his criminal trial and investigations. He is considered one of the most attractive right-wing newcomers, and Shaked was hoping to enlist him to join her team. But Netanyahu gave him a better offer – the 28th place on the Likud list – and beat her to the punch.

Shaked’s decision to disengage from Hendel and fully support Netanyahu is likely to limit her potential electoral base. Saada, Chikli and Silman refresh the Likud with new blood representing the crocheted-kippah base she is hoping to reconcile with and recover.

Shaked aspires to reclaim her status as the one and only princess of the Right, but Netanyahu appears keen on bringing her fairy tale to a tragic end.