The past three months have been the stormiest of Ayelet Shaked’s political life. She broke promises, bucked norms, was protested against, shifted allegiances and sparked antagonism that only time and action might allay.
At the end of this rollercoaster, Shaked has found herself in one of the key roles in the government as minister of the interior, the closest minister to the prime minister, a member of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet and a member of the so-called coronavirus cabinet. Shaked, who Netanyahu took pains to distance from the Prime Minister’s Office, is getting closer with almost daily strides.
“I will stand on my principles and beliefs. Without Yamina, there is no government,” she said in an interview from her office at the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem.
The doors in her office have new names on them. On Wednesday morning, a picture of the previous president, Reuven Rivlin, was still hanging on the wall behind her. Meanwhile, although Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s picture still hasn’t gone up, that of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already been taken down.
Netanyahu’s shadow hangs over the interview with Shaked, and over essentially every step and statement put forth by the new government. Like a son trying to step out of his father’s shadow, the decisions, declarations, even Bennett’s insistence on beginning cabinet meetings on time—everything has been done in contrast to the previous prime minister. As if to show Netanyahu—and the world—that they can do things just as well as him.
Will this continue to be the case? Shaked agrees the government will be judged on its actions rather than its words.
“Netanyahu has a lot of wisdom, knowledge, experience and status, and that can’t be taken from him. But when it comes to working with the current American administration, it will be easier for our government,” said Shaked.
“We’ve already done things that are no less nationalistic than Netanyahu’s governments: The [Jerusalem Day] flag march took place, including to Damascus Gate, which didn’t happen under his watch. Everyone was in agreement that we should allow people to march with Israeli flags in Jerusalem. The response from Bennett and [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz to the balloon terror [from the Gaza Strip] was powerful. The Evyatar settlement was evacuated twice under Netanyahu. As far as we’re concerned, if land surveys show the land belongs to the state, a Jewish community will be established [there].”
The residents of the Evyatar evacuated the outpost on July 2 in accordance with an agreement reached with the government following days of negotiations. In accordance with the agreement, signed by the residents on June 30, the settlement’s buildings will not be destroyed, and the Israel Defense Forces will immediately take up a position there, maintaining a continuous presence there while a land survey is conducted.
If it is determined that the land belongs to the state and isn’t privately owned, the agreement calls for the establishment of a yeshivah along with living quarters for students and families of the yeshivah team, as well as preparations for a permanent settlement.
Q: Yair Lapid scoffed and said a community won’t be established at Evyatar.
A: So he said that. The prime minister and defense minister will uphold the agreement.
Q: And what about a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem, as desired by the Biden administration?
A: At the moment there is no consulate.
Q: If an American demand should arise to transfer parts of Area C [of Judea and Samaria] to Area B or A, which has happened in the past, what will you do?
A: Write this down: There will be no transfer of land from Area C to Area B or A. There will be no construction freeze in Judea and Samaria, and certainly not in Jerusalem. There will be the same construction as under the Netanyahu governments.
‘Were there votes against annexation?‘
On Tuesday morning, Shaked tried and failed to pass the law egulating the status and residency of Palestinian spouses of Arab Israelis. The “family reunification law,” first passed as a temporary order in 2003, blocks the automatic granting of citizenship or residency to Palestinians married to Israelis and has been extended by the Knesset every year since.
Less than 24 hours later, during the night, the coalition was forced to pull another bill from the docket. Without a clear majority, the coalition is struggling to pass laws through the Knesset.
Q: Three weeks since the government’s inauguration and you still can’t pass laws you feel are vital to national security. Aside from the law to prevent family unification, on Tuesday night, Defense Minister Gantz said: “Tonight, I had to pull an important law aimed at preventing women who falsely claim to be religious from evading service in the IDF.” What does this say about the government?
A: [The first] law is very important to the security of Israel. It’s possible to live [without] the second one. You need to understand why the citizenship law fell. Initially, I misjudged and didn’t believe the Likud and its partners would oppose the law in the moment of truth. Nationalist parties in the opposition have never opposed this law, which everyone realizes is vital to Israel’s security. Netanyahu himself, as prime minister and as opposition leader against [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, always said that when it comes to Israel’s security you don’t play the coalition-opposition game.
When the vote drew near and I saw they were going to oppose it, I understood I needed to find a solution within the coalition—which is what I did. Notice what happened. Meretz voted in favor of the law. Two MKs from the Ra’am Party—which is quite extraordinary—voted in favor of the law. These parties are paying a heavy price with their constituencies. And had [Yamina MK] Amichai Chikli not lied [about supporting the bill], we would have had a majority. If I had known that Chikli would oppose, contrary to what he told me two minutes before the vote, I’d have enlisted a third MK from Ra’am.”
Q: You really thought the Likud would oppose it? They are the opposition. That’s their job.
A: I have no problem with the vicious and crude accusations against us, with filibustering, or with parliamentary attrition. I can deal with all these things. But an opposition needs to act professionally. That’s how I conducted myself when Netanyahu dismantled the right-wing bloc, contrary to his promises, and left us in the opposition. I criticized the government for its mistakes but also supported certain laws, certainly in times of war. This law should have been outside the bounds of political argument.
Q: Then Netanyahu and Chikli are to blame, and only the government is blameless?
A: I did everything I could to pass the law and I’m not shirking responsibility. Ultimately, we failed. But bottom line, the coalition with Ra’am voted in favor of a Jewish state, while the opposition of Netanyahu, [Bezalel] Smotrich and the Haredim voted against a Jewish state, against the Shin Bet’s position, and against the security and demographic interests of the Jewish state.
I must ask: If I were to present legislation for the annexation of Gush Etzion or Ma’aleh Adumim—would they also vote against it because of politics? Because due to these politics they invited 15,000 Palestinians to get Israeli citizenship. This vote was a mark of shame for Netanyahu, just like his vote in favor of disengagement [from Gaza].
‘Searching for administrative tools’
Q: As interior minister, what do you intend to do with the 13,500 Palestinian requests that will soon be placed on your desk?
A: Immediately after this interview with you, I have my first meeting [to learn] about the administrative tools I have at my disposal as interior minister to handle the problem. At the same time, I intend to present the bill for another vote and to enlist a majority. But this will be more complicated because it will no longer be an extension of an interim law, rather a legislative process starting from scratch, which must be passed through three hearings.
Q: As long as we’re starting at the beginning, why don’t you pass the immigration bill, as proposed by the opposition?
A: This proposal was a troll job. The Likud was in power for 12 years and never pushed it. I support the legislation, but we need a version that is agreed upon by the entire coalition [meaning Meretz and Labor—A.K.]. There’s also a reason the right didn’t legislate the immigration bill: because we didn’t want to challenge the Law of Return in the High Court of Justice.
Q: Netanyahu claimed he asked you as justice minister to advance the immigration bill.
A: This also isn’t true. This law was supposed to have been promoted by interior ministers that served under Netanyahu—Silvan Shalom, Gideon Sa’ar and Aryeh Deri. Not the Justice Ministry.
Q: Here, you just said the government’s composition makes it impossible to pass the immigration bill. And this is a serious problem that many of your voters have. You’re in the government with a Muslim Brotherhood party and the extreme left. This isn’t Netanyahu’s or Chikli’s problem.
A: It’s not a secret that this isn’t the government we thought we wanted to join.
Q: So why did you establish it?
A: We did everything we could to form a right-wing government. We never disqualified Netanyahu and we made many efforts to help him assemble a government, even when he only had 59 MKs. By the way, two days before his mandate [to form a coalition] expired, I told his people to present the government to the Knesset—even though he didn’t have 61 MKs, just 59. He didn’t want to. When his mandate expired, we suggested that the Likud recommend Bennett to the president to establish a right-wing government, but Netanyahu didn’t want to transfer the mandate to Bennett.
Q: Why didn’t you call on Sa’ar to join when Netanyahu publicly expressed willingness for a rotation with Bennett and Sa’ar?
A: I called on him to do that, and Bennett said he was willing to concede his spot as prime minister and to only be defense minister. But Sa’ar didn’t want to. He didn’t believe Netanyahu. Therefore, only when I saw there was no other option to form any other government, and that the alternative was either a fifth election or the current government, I was persuaded. And I stand by my choice. This is not an easy or simple government and everyone is making concessions. But it was right to form it and not go to elections.
Q: So, you say Sa’ar didn’t want that, and Sa’ar’s people say Yamina didn’t want it. It was convenient for you to pin the blame on one another.
A: That’s outrageous. Bennett said at that point in time that he is conceding his spot in a rotation. Sa’ar didn’t show up. In the end, Netanyahu failed to assemble a government because no one trusted his word.
‘Things are happening with Jordan’
Shaked adamantly rejects the assumption widely propagated by Religious Zionist Party head Betzalel Smotrich, whereby even prior to the election Bennett intended to leverage the situation to become prime minister.
“You can’t escape the reality: If Netanyahu had secured 61 MKs, we would have assembled a government with Netanyahu,” said Shaked. “If Smotrich would have agreed to sit with Ra’am, there would have been a government. Yamina said in advance that it doesn’t belong to any bloc, that we would do all in our power to prevent a fifth election, and that Netanyahu needed to be replaced.”
Q: But you also said you wouldn’t sit with Lapid, and that you wouldn’t sit with Ra’am, and that you would only establish a right-wing government, and so on and so forth.
A: We made promises that … turned out to be contradictory. The Haredim and Smotrich are the ones who decided not to disengage from Netanyahu.
Q: If the Haredim or Smotrich came along now and expressed a willingness to join a Bennett-Lapid government, would you accept them?
A: We would make a considerable effort and succeed in welcoming any party that wants to do so. Moreover, let them challenge us.
Q: The coalition agreement doesn’t allow you to bring on more parties.
A: That’s incorrect. I’ll only say that any such initiative requires agreement.
Q: What would happen, from your perspective, if the Likud were to replace its chairman?
A: I’m not addressing a hypothetical question. There is a government in Israel and regardless, in the meantime it doesn’t appear Netanyahu is going anywhere.
Q: Let’s go back to the citizenship law. Is it important for security or demographic reasons?
A: Both. And more than that, the fact that Arab members of Knesset voted in favor of this law as it is written significantly strengthens the state’s arguments in the High Court of Justice. The biggest fight in the High Court was over this law, and both times it barely passed.
Q: And now, when Lapid says the motive is demographic, he is weakening the law in the High Court—because the state argued the motive was security-related.
A: Lapid says that, and so do we. The motive is demographic and security. I read the Shin Bet’s opinion. Factually, most of the terrorist attacks committed by Arab Israelis were by those who became citizens under family unification, or their children. Hence a security motive exists. But even as justice minister, I said you need to also make the demographic and nationalist argument.
Q: It seems it’s very convenient for your partners in the coalition that the heat over losing the citizenship law vote is being directed at you and Bennett. Sa’ar, Lapid, Gantz, [Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor] Lieberman—they were all quiet.
A: I don’t look at others, I fight for what I believe.
Q: You don’t think there’s an attempt here to wear you down in terms of public opinion?
A: As I said, I don’t look sideways. The [coalition] partners are working in coordination with us. Sometimes there are disagreements and some of them rise to the surface. But that’s natural. All in all, this government is functioning well. Prime Minister Bennett is managing things in a responsible manner, opposite the Americans as well. In terms of managing the coronavirus pandemic, too, he’s doing the work on the ground without boasting and fanfare. Good things are happening in many areas, including with Jordan and the Iranians.
Q: You’re the interior minister. What do you plan on doing in terms of illegal migrants?
A: We’ll formulate policy soon. I can’t advance legislation on every issue that I want, because of political differences within the government. But there are a lot of things that administratively can be done to encourage voluntarily leaving the country, including agreements with third-party countries.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.