Why Everyone's Talking About Israel's New Justice Minister
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Israel's new government was sworn in today. Little change in foreign policy is expected, but political divides on domestic issues could easily deepen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new coalition is made up of religious and right-wing parties. And we're going to meet one new member who wields plenty of power on domestic policies. NPR's Emily Harris introduces us to Israel's new minister of justice, who proved controversial even before she was named to the job.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Ayelet Shaked is secular, lives in liberal Tel Aviv and has a background in high tech. Ari Soffer, the managing director of Israel National News, calls her a patriot.
ARI SOFFER: She's a secular Jew, but she's somebody for whom Jewish identity is very important. She represents Israelis who believe very strongly in Jewish values and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. In American terms, you'd call her a patriot.
HARRIS: Politically, Shaked is part of the religious Zionist Jewish Home Party, which draws its strength from Israeli settlers who live in the West Bank. Negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just to name her justice minister were drawn out and difficult. Jerusalem Post's chief political correspondent, Gil Hoffman, says in part that's because the justice minister wields real power.
GIL HOFFMAN: The justice minister is in charge of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which is a very important committee when it comes to passing bills.
HARRIS: That committee can hold or fold legislation and is key to getting the prime minister's agenda through Parliament. Hoffman says Shaked's appointment was controversial in part to make sure she didn't have too much power but not because of specific policy differences with Netanyahu.
HOFFMAN: Oh, it has nothing to do with policy. It has to do with personal issues. And Ayelet Shaked was Netanyahu's secretary. They had a big fight. And since then, they have not been on speaking terms.
HARRIS: Until now. So right off the bat, Shaked is a symbol of tensions within Israel's new government. For some Israelis, Shaked also represents positions that weaken Israeli democracy. One of her Facebook posts from last summer got a lot of attention after her appointment as minister. In it, she quoted and endorsed the words of a now deceased settler leader who cast most Palestinians as enemy combatants. Asad Ghanem is a Palestinian-Israeli professor of political science.
ASAD GHANEM: It seems that Ayelet Shaked, with the help of the government - the entire government, they are going to try and make a deep and comprehensive change regarding basic questions like civil rights, like the question of the future of the peace process.
HARRIS: Shaked has gotten online harassment and received death threats since her appointment. She's now under police protection. During her two years in Parliament, she endorsed putting the Jewish character of Israel's basic laws on equal footing with democratic principles and bringing more conservative judges to Israel's highest court. Nachman Shai is with the opposition Labor Party in Israel's parliament. He worries about Shaked's views.
NACHMAN SHAI: She has to protect the judicial system of Israel, which is essential to Israel democracy - essential. From what she has been saying all the way, including recently, she is going to weaken the Supreme Court.
HARRIS: Israeli High Court judges are appointed by a committee chaired by the justice minister. Many Israeli conservatives, including Shaked's supporters, want to shift the balance of power between Parliament and the High Court in Israel so there's less judicial oversight. But law professor Suzie Navot doesn't think Shaked will get far in that, even if she tries.
SUZIE NAVOT: When we'll have to choose new members for the Supreme Court - that's in two years - we'll see. We'll see who are the candidates, and we'll see if she is still, in two years, the minister of justice.
HARRIS: Israeli governments are elected for four years, but last December, Netanyahu called elections after just two years, saying he couldn't govern with his previous coalition. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.