Israeli Justice Minister Shaked 'We Will Not Commit Suicide'

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is a hardliner in an Israeli government that already veers sharply to the right. She views the conflict with the Palestinians as being unsolvable and emphasizes "Jewish values" as much as law and democracy.
Von Nicola Abé und Ronen Bergman

Ayelet Shaked, 39, has had an astonishing career. She studied information technology and later worked in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before falling out with him eight years ago and leaving the job. Today, Shaked is a member of his cabinet as his justice minister. She achieved that ascent by taking over the reins together with Naftali Bennett of the national religious party Jewish Home, which has become the third-strongest party in Israel, attracting the votes of young Tel Aviv residents as well as radical settlers. The fact that the party is able to manage this balancing act is also due to Shaked's merits. She's smart, secular and radical and doesn't shy away from making razor-sharp -- some would even say racist -- comments.

She has risen to become one of the most admired and hated politicians in Israel. She's not the kind of person to wait for an elevator, instead obliging her entourage to take the stairs for her interview with SPIEGEL in the Justice Ministry in East Jerusalem. She offers a friendly smile, but speaks firmly -- at times raising her voice, particularly when the subject of Hamas in Gaza comes up in the conversation. The interview is conducted in English, but she sometimes switches to Hebrew since she feels more comfortable speaking in her mother tongue.

SPIEGEL: Minister Shaked, the Knesset is currently discussing a bill you proposed that would require NGOs funded by foreign governments to disclose the donations they receive. The law would primarily affect left-leaning peace and human rights groups. Is this an attack on Israeli democracy?

Shaked: This law does not hurt any democratic principles -- it does not harm the freedom of speech or the freedom of organization. We do not even limit the donations. It is just a transparency bill. The Israeli public has the right to know which organizations are representing foreign interests.

SPIEGEL: Your proposal is strongly reminiscent of similar laws by authoritarian regimes like Egypt or Russia. You once claimed that the United States has similar regulations, but the US ambassador to Israel just publicly contradicted that statement. Do you not fear that you could harm your country's reputation?

Shaked: It is inappropriate for a country to intervene in the internal issues of another country like this. I want to bring the discussion back to the main issue at hand: Why doesn't anyone address the substantive question of why other states blatantly interfere in Israel's internal affairs? Israel does not meddle in the affairs of other states in a similar way, so why do other countries feel entitled to do this to Israel? These actions violate Israeli sovereignty and I expect European Union member states to act differently.

SPIEGEL: So is your bill in fact targeting foreign governments?

Shaked: Every time I meet an ambassador, I bring to the a table a list of NGOs I think are acting against Israel, promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or denouncing our soldiers. I ask from them to stop contributing to these specific NGOs. But, unfortunately, it does not help. I do not want countries that are friends of ours to contribute to such organizations.

SPIEGEL: So you are admitting that your proposal is about more than just transparency? Are you also trying to limit the work of certain critical organizations?

Shaked: No. I am talking about two different paths here. I am saying that I am trying to minimize the donations to these groups by talking to diplomats. The transparency bill also has the purpose of enabling the Israeli public and members of Knesset to know whose interests certain organizations represent.

SPIEGEL: Another institution you are criticizing for its alleged interference in Israeli politics is your country's Supreme Court.

Shaked: I am very proud of our Supreme Court -- it is one of the best worldwide. Nevertheless, since the 1990s, we have seen a certain imbalance in the relationship between the judiciary, the parliament and the government. The Supreme Court behaved in an activist way. We have to debate the degree to which such Supreme Court activism is appropriate.

SPIEGEL: A member of parliament belonging to your party demanded a few months ago that the Supreme Court be demolished. You yourself are planning a bill that would enable the Knesset to overrule decisions made by the judges -- thereby enabling it to implement laws that have been declared unlawful. It sounds like you want to strip the judiciary of its power.

Shaked: At issue here is a basic law which enables the Supreme Court to quash laws in extreme cases. Up until now, this right of the Supreme Court was not mentioned anywhere, but was just taken. At the same time, we want to enable the Knesset to overrule decisions of the Supreme Court. At the moment, we are discussing the necessary majority -- I support a majority of 61.

SPIEGEL: But that would enable the current government to reverse any decision made by the high court. The outcome is already obvious: You are seeking the greater influence of halakha (Jewish law) in lawmaking. But isn't this a renunciation of the secular state?

Shaked: I expect from our judges that their verdicts are also inspired by Talmudic law -- and not only by common law or European justice systems.

SPIEGEL: You are also a supporter of the controversial nation-state bill, which would define Israel first and foremost as a Jewish state. Critics fear democratic principles could be subordinated to religious ones in the future.

Shaked: We already have two very strong democratic tools -- the two basic laws of personal liberties and human rights. I think we should also provide the judiciary with another tool so that they can rely on the fact that Israel is a Jewish state in verdicts.

SPIEGEL: Many Jewish communities abroad fear Israel is becoming less and less pluralistic. They don't feel represented by your policies. Shouldn't Israel be taking these voices more seriously?

Shaked: Jewish communities in the diaspora are very important to Israel and we are open to a dialogue with them. It is bitter for us to see the process of assimilation, the mixing of Jewish and non-Jewish. But when it comes to the relations of state and religions, the basics have not changed since Rabin's times. As the head of a religious party, I am not in favor of civil marriage or the full recognition of non-Orthodox converts in Israel.

SPIEGEL: Officially, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still supports the two-state solution, but almost the entire government opposes it. Where do you stand on the issue?

Shaked: I think the gap between Israelis and Palestinians is too deep to be bridged in our generation. Politically, we are in favor of a regional solution. A part of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) should be annexed by Israel, and the other parts should be incorporated in a confederation with Jordan.

SPIEGEL: So there should not be a Palestinian state?

Shaked: We see nation-states collapsing all around us: Libya, Syria, Iraq. We do not want another failed state in our neighborhood, which would rapidly turn into a stronghold for terrorists, as we have seen in Gaza. We do not want tunnels to suburbs of Tel Aviv or missiles pointed at Jerusalem.

SPIEGEL: The peace process has been stagnating for many years now, very much to the rest of the world's frustration.

Shaked: We will not commit suicide because of pressure from the international community. A Palestinian state is not possible at the moment. I would rather fight and try to explain the situation in the Middle East to the world than to agree to steps that harm my country to satisfy the international community.

SPIEGEL: But polls regularly show that a majority of Israelis wants peace talks.

Shaked: The right wing controls Israel today -- we have the mandate of the people. I think the majority of Israelis understand that there will not be two states existing peacefully, side-by-side, in the near future.

SPIEGEL: For a few months now, Israel has been haunted by a new wave of violence. Many people fear the attacks will continue or even increase because Palestinians have lost hope in a political solution to the conflict and the economic situation is terrible. So you just want to continue with the same strategy?

Shaked: We have no other choice but to go on managing the conflict. We propose a stability plan: We want to strengthen the Palestinian Authority economically and establish mutual industrial zones and help them to develop independent energy capabilities, enabling the Palestinians to live their lives independently and have a future. This is where the European States should invest, not in NGOs that harm Israel.

SPIEGEL: One of the reasons the economy is struggling so badly there is because of the blockade imposed by Israel. Traffic in goods to Gaza is strictly regulated. How is anything supposed to develop there?

Shaked: I have to interrupt you here. The economy in Gaza is declining because Gaza is controlled by a terror regime.

SPIEGEL: You seem to have an answer for everything. Is this the reason for your nickname, "the computer"?

Shaked: I do not take things to the heart. I calculate and I do what needs to be done. If I were to start acting emotionally, it would destroy my work.

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