MESOP WATCH: Israel’s Interior Minister rallies the Right

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, once considered the next leader of the Israeli right, has gotten into snowballing disagreements with ministers on the left.Mazal Mualem AL MONITOR – March 30, 2022

– Just three hours after the March 29 terrorist attack in the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s image flashed on the digital attendance board in the Knesset, signifying that the opposition leader was in the building. Within minutes, Knesset members Yariv Levin and Shlomi Karhi of his Likud party had joined him there.

It was close to midnight, and of all the 120 members of Knesset, they were the only ones in the building. While this was happening, Israelis were glued to their TV sets, watching the chilling news from the third deadly attack in a week.

For Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his government, this new wave of terrorism is a security challenge right in the middle of a major public and political crisis.

That is why Netanyahu’s late-night appearance in the Knesset immediately led to speculation that he was planning a new political maneuver to bring down the Bennett-Lapid government. And the immediate suspect for person most likely to help him get a Knesset majority is Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Ever since the formation of the current government, people wondered whether Shaked, who has the reputation of being the coalition’s most rightwing member, would break with her party and join the opposition to bring down the coalition. Speculation has intensified over the last few months.

Upon resigning as minister Feb. 22, Knesset Member Eli Avidar accused Shaked of planning to bring down the government. This came after her refusal to advance the bill that would ban someone accused of a felony from running for the Knesset. Avidar himself was advancing the bill, which was intended to prevent Netanyahu from running.

“I suggest that Minister Shaked show us her real face and admit that she is planning to bring down the government the very first chance she gets,” Avidar said recently. However, Shaked does make a point of speaking well of the government and especially of the prime minister, who also happens to be her longtime Yamina Party ally and partner. But there are two sides to Shaked, and the other side continues to fan these rumors, especially over the last month.

On March 10, the Knesset passed Shaked’s Citizenship Law with help from the rightwing opposition. Both Meretz and Ra’am, who called the law “racist,” made a point of absenting themselves for the vote. It would not have passed without support from the opposition.

At the same time, Shaked came under sharp attack from within the government over the crisis in Ukraine. As Minister of the Interior, Shaked is responsible for Israel’s immigration policy. That policy reflected her personal worldview by capping non-Jewish refugees at only 5,000. Furthermore, she initially decided that every refugee would have to leave a steep 10,000-shekel guarantee that they would leave the country after a given time. That rule was dropped due to pressure within the government.

Minister of Diapora Affairs Nachman Shai of the Labor Party, after an emotional visit to the Polish border with Ukraine, posted an attack on Shaked and her policy: “They finally overturned that unnecessary fine of 10,000 shekels per person. So many tears. Now prepare to absorb these refugees, as one would expect of the nation-state of the Jewish people, a nation that wandered from country to country as refugees throughout its long history.”

Shaked showed no loyalty to Shai in her response: “I suggest that the Minister of Diaspora Affairs focus on the national task before us of absorbing tens of thousands of immigrants, instead of maligning Israel and challenging its immigration policy. … I would expect ministers to show pride in their country, instead of tweeting irresponsibly.”

As a result of this feud, Shaked is now the minister who comes under the most attacks from the center-left faction of the government. On the other hand, her popularity among the right is increasing. Adding to this tension are reports of a cooling in her relationship with Bennett, who is reportedly annoyed with her recent actions.

Until the formation of the current government, Shaked was considered the “Queen of the Right.” She was a popular contrarian who could effectively relay rightwing, pro-settler messages attacking the ideology of the left. Before the government was finalized, she spoke frequently with her colleagues on the right about her reservations.

Some believed until the very last minute that she would abandon her alliance with her political partner Bennett and block the formation of the new government. In the end, she left them disappointed, but many still believed that she would eventually have a change of heart and bring down the government in some secret deal with Netanyahu.

After the recent wave of attacks, people are once again looking to Shaked to act. Some within the government itself are concerned that she could bring down the brittle coalition.

In the March 27 cabinet meeting, before the attacks in Hadera and Bnei Brak, Shaked led a decision to establish ten new villages in the Negev, in response to the attack in Beersheba, perpetrated by a member of the Bedouin community from the Negev. Her coalition partners from Meretz were furious, noting that only one of the new settlements was intended for the Bedouin. Ra’am was angry too, but they maintained their silence.

Minister of the Environment Tamar Zandberg of Meretz called the decision “destructive and worrisome,” and an economic and social mistake. “At a time when the Negev and the south need healing, rehabilitation, and strengthening, this decision actually weakens it,” she said. “Instead of giving Beersheba a boost after the terrible murder that took place there, we are building villas for affluent sectors, when we should be supporting the existing cities.”

Knesset Member Mossi Raz, also from Meretz,  tweeted that the proposal “runs counter to any logic from an environmental, social, economic, and planning perspective. It is an attempt by Shaked to toss out the logic of settlements within the country proper. It would be a serious blow to the residents of the Negev, Jews and Arabs alike.”

In the end, the decision was approved, and Shaked boasted about it in a series of posts to social media.

Since then, there have been two additional terrorist attacks, sending shockwaves through the country and especially, the government. The right is already preparing to bring the coalition down because of this. All eyes are now on Shaked. It is hard to imagine her abandoning her long alliance with Bennett. In fact, he invited her to join him on a state visit to India, which has since been cancelled. Nevertheless, the right is hopeful that the end is near for this government, and that Shaked will be the catalyst for its fall.
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