Rising star of Israeli right targets breakthrough

Michael Blum and Stephen Weizman

Jerusalem (AFP) - On a Saturday night, after sundown marked the end of the Jewish Sabbath, rising political star Ayelet Shaked shook hands, posed for selfies and downed shots of arak as she toured Jerusalem bars.

The head of the newly minted "Yamina" (Rightward) hard-right alliance does not mask her intentions: She wants one day to succeed her former boss Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel.

To further that aim and perhaps to soften her image, she recently took to the alleyways of Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, a hub of nightlife after the produce stalls close for the day.

The visit was part of her campaign ahead of Israel's September 17 general election.

"Campaigning means talking to people in the street, it's important," she told AFP as she visited the market district's bars and restaurants, her words occasionally drowned out by surrounding revellers.

The 43-year-old former justice minister caused a sensation among customers, who invited her to sit with them, pose for pictures or take a shot of the potent, anise-flavoured arak, to which she repeatedly agreed.

"You must vote Yamina to ensure that there is a right-wing government," she told the crowd.

"She is mesmerising," said Daniel Trattner, 22, who says voting for Shaked means "to vote for my values".

Shaked, an engineer who once worked as a marketing director for Texas Instruments, began her political career as a member of Netanyahu's Likud party.

Born in a well-to-do Tel Aviv neighbourhood, where she still lives with her husband and two children, she has come to represent a new generation of Israeli right-wingers.

She left the Likud around a decade ago to branch out on her own after a stint managing Netanyahu's office.

She was named Israel's most influential woman by Forbes magazine in 2017 and 2018.

Many expect she will one day return to the Likud.

- 'Fascist' perfume -

Her far-right politics have gained her a strong following among Israeli nationalists and the settler movement, and she has not shied away from provocative stances.

Ahead of Israel's previous elections in April, she was mocked over a campaign video that showed an elegantly dressed Shaked spraying herself with "Fascist" perfume before declaring it "smells like democracy to me".

The ad played on accusations from critics that she pursued a fascist-like agenda as justice minister and argued that her policies are in fact more democratic.

Unlike in April, Shaked is now at the top of her party's electoral list and she has so far avoided such splashy stunts.

Accompanying Shaked on her nighttime campaign tour was former MP Shuli Moalem, now running on Yamina's list.

"People adore her and show her a lot of love," she told AFP.

But there were also doubts.

"I vote for the right but she is surrounded by people who are too extreme," said Roi, a 22-year-old off-duty soldier, referring to religious nationalists who are part of her electoral list. "So I am still hesitating."

Noa, a young woman who took a selfie with Shaked, said "she is beautiful and bright, but I don't want the rabbis around her to have too much power."

The Yamina alliance joins Shaked's New Right with the Union of Right Wing Parties, led by Orthodox rabbi Rafi Peretz, currently education minister in Netanyahu's coalition.

Peretz and Transport Minister Bezalel Smotrich, third on the Yamina list, have made controversial statements in recent months.

Peretz has endorsed therapy to convert gays to heterosexuality -- a statement he later disavowed.

Smotrich has said Israel should be ruled by Jewish law like in the biblical era, though "in accordance with these times".

- 'Message for women' -

The Union of Right Wing Parties won five seats in April elections.

Shaked's New Right, then led by former education minister Naftali Bennett, failed to win a single seat since it fell below the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent.

Opinion polls have shown their combined alliance, with Shaked at the top, winning around 10 seats this time.

Justice minister in Netanyahu's government from 2015 to 2019, Shaked is a crusader against what she sees as interference in politics by the Supreme Court, which in recent years has made rulings unfavourable to the right on issues such as settlement building.

Although she does not identify herself as a feminist, Shaked is happy to remind listeners that she is the first woman to head a right-wing party in Israel.

"A woman leading this party is an important message for women, but also for Israeli society," said Moalem.

Yomtov Kalfon, a Yamina candidate, said she has what it takes to become premier.

"She knows how to create alliances, remove obstacles and rally (people) around her."

Shaked, he says, "goes straight to the point and has all the qualities to succeed Netanyahu".