Can One Woman Solve Both Of Israel’s Toughest Problems?

Ayelet Shaked to be the first woman and the first non-observant Jew to lead the unified bloc of the religious Zionist right

Ayelet Shaked

This week, the parties running in the September Israeli election must be finalized, with no changes being allowed after the deadline. Hence, while the two center-right and center-left parties of Likud and Blue and White, respectively are set, a flurry of activity is taking place on both the right and the left shoulders of the Israeli body politic. On the left, the once great, but now barely surviving Labor party scored a victory of sorts by adding to its ranks the daughter of the guy who pretty much invented the politics of sectorial grievance in Israel, the guy who was a minister from the Likud in many a government in the 80’s and 90’s and a fixture of Israeli politics for many decades, David Levy. His daughter Orly has tried to carry on his mantle as the champion of the downtrodden classes, especially those originating from the Moroccan diaspora, but she has met with limited success as the more religious Shas party has grown in the same community and as living standards for all have been climbing in recent decades, though far from equally so.

Having failed to secure the necessary four Knesset seat minimum in the April election, Orly Levi-Abekasis has now joined the struggling Labor party in exchange for a relatively high placement on its list of candidates. The invitation extended to her to do so was a move that many left-wing Ashkenazi leaders like Ehud Barak have dubbed “pandering” and moving the Labor party closer to the Likud and away from the Ashkenazi left.

Speaking of the notorious Mr. Barak, he is now number ten seed in the list of candidates for the newly formed Democratic Israel party, a party that represents the interests of the hard-left and entirely Ashkenazi so-called Israeli intelligentsia. For the first time ever, this will test the actual electoral heft of this particular voter bloc, a bloc that is extremely dovish on the Arab question, utterly permissive on social issues, and vehemently atheistic, though fiscally rather conservative as it comprises of mostly affluent and even wealthy voters.

On the right, Naftali Bennett acknowledged his responsibility for missing the four seat cut-off in the April elections and ceded the number one spot in his New Right party to his secular partner, Ayelet Shaked. In turn, Ms. Shaked is now very busy trying to unite all of the Zionist (nationalist) religious parties to the right of the Likud into one bloc thus avoiding the disastrous loss of seats that these voters suffered in April.

This is far from an easy task not only because of politicians’ habitually over-sized egos, but also and even primarily because the bearded religious men who form the leadership of these parties have an extremely hard time placing a non-observant (though traditional) woman at the helm. The rabbis who are the spiritual leaders of the Zionist right, are even more reluctant to allow for this to happen.

Nevertheless, indications are that the fear of a left-wing coalition, a coalition that would be a disaster for Israeli control of Judea and Samaria, and the specter of the violent expulsion of Jews from the Gaza strip under the late PM Ariel Sharon may be enough for the leaders of the Zionist right to swallow hard and indeed agree to run for the new Knesset under the leadership of a woman who does not observe the Sabbath.

Netanyahu now is, as president Trump has tweeted, the longest serving Israeli PM of all times. Even when compared to the reigns of the kings from the House of David, his reign has been quite long. It has also been exceedingly successful by any possible measure. Bibi, as he is called by friends and enemies alike, has indeed put Israel on the map, and how. But like all such leaders, he has failed in two respects. One of them is grooming a successor. Netanyahu’s hubris, his lust for power, and his belief that right now there is no one on the horizon who could replace him without jeopardizing his historic achievements for Israel combined with the constant, again Trump-like, harassment that he has been subjected to during his entire tenure as PM make it all but impossible for him to step aside and ensure an orderly transition of leadership in his party and in the country.

Bibi’s second failure has been bridging the twin gaps of have and have nots and religious and secular in Israeli society before they tear it apart. Israel badly needs a new direction. Having been founded by staunch secularist socialists, it has transitioned into a much more capitalistic economy with the commensurate wealth gaps. The question of the role that Judaism as a religion would play in the old-new land as the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl had called it, had also remained unanswered. Since the wealth gap largely mimics the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi and secular-religious divides in Israel, this is really all one big problem. In fact, it is by far the biggest problem facing Israel and the only one currently capable of threatening its continued existence and long-term survival.

Israel badly needs someone who can credibly replace Bibi Netanyahu at the helm while embodying in their person the three foundations upon which the Jewish nation has always rested: our religion, our people, and our land. Ayelet Shaked may be just that kind of person. Like the plurality of Jewish Israelis, Shaked is not observant, but she has a deep love for our religion and our traditions. She has demonstrated a deep-seated respect for observant Israelis and a willingness to work with them on an equal footing. As the wife of a career fighter pilot, she has a true appreciation for the sacrifices that Israelis are asked to make for their homeland, an appreciation that she combines with the traditionally pragmatic approach to solving the toughest problems that are facing our country, both internally and externally. Her cool unflappable personality tells us that she is passionate about what counts: the safety and prosperity of our people in our ancient homeland, while being open to practical solutions and compromises to make it happen.

Finally, Shaked’s beauty and innate charisma are qualities that have never hurt a politician as can be attested by the latest news that cross the wire. The deal is done. Ayelet Shaked will be the first woman to lead the union of religious Zionist parties. If a non-observant woman can accomplish such a feat, if she can stop, even temporarily the internecine bickering, if she can suspend, however briefly, the rabbis’ distrust of women in general and secular women in particular, there is nothing she cannot do. Netanyahu’s successor may have just (finally) revealed herself.

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