Trading in hasbara for politics

Ayelet Shaked hopes her experience as a pro-Israel activist will help her become an MK for Habayit Hayehudi.

Ayelet Shaked 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Ayelet Shaked 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Hi-tech marketing manager by day, Zionist crusader by night. It may sound like the life of a comic-book character, but that is how Ayelet Shaked, 36, has been living for the past two years, as the leader of hasbara (public diplomacy) NGO “My Israel.” Now, Shaked wants to turn Zionism into her day job, vying for a seat on Habayit Hayehudi’s list for the next Knesset.
As straightforward as that may seem, there’s a catch – Shaked is secular, and she wants to represent what is essentially heir to the National Religious Party in the Knesset. Habayit Hayehudi began a membership drive this summer, which ended early this month, ahead of the party’s first-ever primary in November.
Plus, Shaked is a former Likud member, working with Habayit Hayehudi leadership candidate Naftali Bennett in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office when he was opposition leader, before the two founded My Israel.
Sitting on a couch in the living room of the northern Tel Aviv home she shares with her husband, an IAF pilot, and a son and daughter aged four and seven, across from shelves packed with autobiographies (Winston Churchill, Jack Welch, Richard Feynman) and popular fiction (The Da Vinci Code, Q&A), Shaked explained why she is trading in hasbara for politics, and the incongruous choice of religious politics, at that.
Why Habayit Hayehudi?
I was leading My Israel earlier this year, when there were rumors of an upcoming election. I decided, together with Bennett and [former IDF Chief] Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, to enter politics.
Our goal was to combine religious and secular and, based on the values of the Torah, be to the right of Netanyahu. We are strong Zionists, and we want to be Netanyahu’s spine.
We hoped to stop boycotts of Israel, and fight those who want to turn Israel into a “state of all its citizens.”
Habayit Hayehudi fit our values, especially because, for the first time, it is allowing the public to elect its representatives.
Plus, the Right is too divided, and we want one strong party to the right of the Likud.
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You didn’t think it was a problem to join a religious party as a secular person?
I deliberated the issue a lot. Bennett and Rontzki pushed me to do it, even though most people in my close environment said I shouldn’t. I believe in being brave and trying things, and I believe in partnerships between religious and secular people, even if it isn’t easy.
There have been columns in the national-religious press debating whether you should be allowed on the Habayit Hayehudi list. What kind of reactions have you been getting on the campaign?
I understand the suspicion. My rivals try to use the fact that I’m not one of them against me, but I believe in the wisdom of crowds and democracy.
The public is smart.
I go to a different campaign event in a different town each night, and I feel strengthened. I get positive Facebook messages and emails. People think a secular-religious partnership is important.
They see from my record that we share values. Religious people, even serious rabbis said they support me, like Rabbi Benny Kalmanson of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva, and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, and former NRP leader Rabbi Yitzhak Levi.
If you, Bennett and Rontzki want to make a difference, why did you choose a party with only three seats in the Knesset that focuses on a specific sector?
We hope the party, under Bennett’s leadership, won’t stay small. The NRP reached 12 seats in the past, and if all religious Zionists vote as a bloc, they can get 15 seats. Our goal is not to stay with three seats, but to grow to be a significant political power.
When that happens we can deal with general issues, not just sectorial ones. Money for yeshivot and ulpanot (religious girls’ high schools) is important, but we want to do other things, too.
Likud was my home for many years, and I value the party, but a sole MK does not have a major influence on Netanyahu. He froze settlement construction without considering ministers that oppose it. Same with judicial appointments. He also stopped the bill to freeze funding for left-wing NGOs that undermine our country, which Likud MKs tried to promote.
As a small party, you have more freedom, because you aren’t under the prime minister’s authority.
If, in the future, another disengagement is planned and you’re in the coalition, would you act differently than Orlev, or would you compromise?
I can’t predict the future. I don’t believe in removing Jews from their homes, and I hope I will be strong and stand up against it. If there is talk of another disengagement, I won’t be a part of it.
What about reports that Netanyahu unofficially supports MK Zevulun Orlev in the leadership race?
I know there have been meetings between Orlev and Netanyahu, but there’s no way to know what the prime minister feels personally. It’s natural that the Likud wants Habayit Hayehudi smaller, because we take seats from them. It makes sense that they’re supporting a leadership that will bring our party less seats.
You and Bennett have a history with Netanyahu, leaving his office due to differences of opinion. Do you think that could hurt you politically, when the next coalition is formed?
Habayit Hayehudi is one of Netanyahu’s natural partners. Over the years, the party has worked with Likud and there is no reason for the situation to change. We will back him as prime minister without preconditions.
I know Netanyahu well. I know his advantages and disadvantages. In the past, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was director-general of Netanyahu’s office, and they were very suspicious of each other, but now they work well together. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said terrible things about Netanyahu, and look at their partnership. Bennett and I never hurt Netanyahu.
Our judgment of Netanyahu is by topic. I totally trust him on Iran, for example.
All of the analysts and the general public don’t have the knowledge that he does. A leadership call needs to be made.
How do you think your experience in My Israel will help you in politics?
My Israel exposed me to a lot of people – 90,000 Facebook fans, whom I spoke to every day. I learned what bothered the public and how to speak to them. Today, I deal with a lot of the same topics, but the work is different. I always spoke very directly and bluntly, and I plan to continue, but I’ll do it in Knesset committees and by passing laws. I’ll have to compromise sometimes.One of the major campaigns you led with My Israel was against migration from Africa.
For the past two years, I worked with residents of south Tel Aviv on this issue.
Until recently, people thought the infiltrators were refugees. My Israel warned people that it isn’t true, that 2,000 to 3,000 – mostly Muslim – infiltrators came every month. We organized rallies, tried to get right-wing politicians to join us. We held rally after rally, and no one paid attention until [south Tel Aviv residents] got violent.
The official number of African migrants is 70,000, but unofficially there are 100,000 or more. Fifteen percent of births in Joseftal Medical Center [in Eilat] are Africans. They’re always pregnant!How do you plan to deal with the issue in the Knesset?
We can’t solve Africa’s problems. I know they have problems, but this is the Jewish state, not Africa.
Now that we woke up the government, the problem can be solved. The first solution is to stop employing infiltrators.
Without that step, not even a border fence will help. They should be put in detention camps, that are spread out. The government is working on a law that won’t let them send money out of the country – last year infiltrators sent over a billion shekels! The next step is to deal with the infiltrators that are already here. Policy should depend on how long a person is in Israel. If they are here for over a year, they should work, but if they’re newer than that, they shouldn’t get visas. We should try to negotiate with thirdworld countries and send them back.
My Israel also worked to stop boycotts of Israel. Will you continue working toward that cause in the Knesset?We can’t leave the arena open to only to our enemies, BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] activists. My Israel produced online videos and got others to try to stop boycotts. When we knew anti-Israel people were pressuring artists from abroad, we had our members explain to the singer or band that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. When thousands send that message, the artist then sees that there is more than one side to the story.
We have been fighting for almost a year so that pro-Palestinian organizations do not convince the Red Hot Chili Peppers [who performed in Tel Aviv last week] not to come.
I’m still not sure what I’ll do with this issue if I’m in the Knesset. I will try to work in cooperation with the government. The Foreign Ministry, Public Diplomacy Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office and Education Ministry all have hasbara budgets. If I get there, I'll see how I can help and improve their efforts."
The economy is a big political issue at the moment, with a new budget on the way. What is your position?
I believe in a free market with social sensitivity. We need to be more open and have fewer blocks on enterprise.
There are basic problems that can be taken care of to lower the cost of living – not by giving more money to people, but by removing obstructions. For example, there are huge monopolies, like the port workers, which people don’t have the courage to take apart. If they do, the cost of living will be lower.
The state needs to take care of people, but not everyone and every detail of their lives. People need to be independent.
Habayit Hayehudi’s primary committee decided not to designate a place for new immigrants on the party’s list for the Knesset. Did you support the move?
 It would be a good idea to save a spot for immigrants. The topics that concern them are important, and a lot of our potential voters are immigrants.
However, I understand why they didn’t want to make a change after they already announced [the rules of the primary]. If they had thought of it at first, they should have done it, but you can’t change the game in the middle.
How do you think you can help immigrants, if you reach the Knesset?
Bennett’s parents are from San Francisco, and although he was born here, he is very aware of problems new immigrants face. We set a goal to reach immigrants. Bennett speaks English fluently, and does a lot of hasbara for Israel by talking to the foreign press. We translate speeches into English and put a jingle on YouTube [with English subtitles]. We also have Dr.
Yehuda David on our list, who is trying to bring French immigrants into Habayit Hayehudi.
I held a campaign event in Tel Aviv for English-speaking immigrants and returning Israelis, and about 150 people came. I think Habayit Hayehudi can be their home. They’re all Zionists who left comfortable homes out of ideology and identification with Israel. These people are important to us, because our party is their natural place.
As Shaked prepared to go to the West Bank, where she planned to give a speech, a PR adviser to her and Bennett loaded her campaign poster on his computer, which featured the slogan: “Ayelet Shaked does Zionism.” At his feet were a tiny pink backpack, toy cars and blocks.
How do you balance raising two small children with a political career?
It’s hard to be a mom on a campaign [Shaked sighs]. My husband helps. I’m used to working hard, between my hitech job during the day and ‘My Israel’ in the evenings.