It all started with an old mobile phone. This much-too-smart phone set off one of the juiciest scandals to hit Israel in modern times, threatening to tarnish the image of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose meteoric political rise has generated speculation of a future run for the premiership. The phone belongs to attorney Effi Naveh, the all-powerful chair of the Israel Bar Association (IBA). Until his resignation this week, Naveh was a strategic ally of the justice minister’s. He was the one who helped her lead the dramatic double reform of changing the judicial appointments’ process and appointing to the bench many conservative judges (out of the hundreds appointed during her term as minister).
All this has now collapsed into a deep black hole, with Naveh suspected of pushing through a judge’s appointment in return for sexual favors, turning the IBA into a byzantine harem and contaminating Israel’s sacrosanct judicial appointments system.
As his ally and good friend, Shaked has turned into an obvious target. She is being accused of allowing these improprieties on her watch, ignoring Naveh’s conduct, backing him and failing to see the writing on the wall even when Naveh was caught trying to smuggle his girlfriend in and out of the country by evading passport control at Ben-Gurion Airport.
A Judicial Appointments Committee chaired by the justice minister selects Israeli judges.The panel’s nine members include two lawmakers, two government ministers (one of them the justice minister), three Supreme Court justices and two IBA representatives. A majority of seven is required for candidate approval. In the past (until Shaked was appointed minister), a regular coalition of the three judges and two IBA lawyers voted en bloc, providing the country’s top court with the final say on the country’s judges.
Shaked took office in May 2015, and Naveh was voted IBA chair a month later. She spotted him, he spotted her and their alliance was forged. Together, Shaked and Naveh destroyed the old order and dismantled the previous coalition of five within the committee. They put in place a new order to appoint hundreds of judges, many of them conservatives, in a bid to alter the face of Israel’s judicial branch of government and of the Supreme Court. (A 2017 expose by the investigative television program Uvda of Channel 2 described how the system worked).
Shaked logged a series of dizzying achievements, becoming the first holder of her office to carry out such a historic change. She could not have done it without Naveh. They became friends, hung out together and engaged in endless backslapping in front of the cameras and behind them.
Then came trouble in paradise. As aforementioned, it began with Naveh’s entanglement in trying to spirit his girlfriend out of the country under the radar of the Border Police. He was caught and indicted in late December, but Shaked continued to back him. Naveh grudgingly agreed to take a leave of absence until the end of the proceedings against him. Then, however, his old cell phone made its way into the hands of Hadas Shtaif, the veteran police reporter of Israel Army Radio.
Naveh is mired in an ugly divorce. He left his phone somewhere, and from there the road to media exposure was short. Army Radio handed the phone over to police. Breaking into a cell phone is illegal, but in light of the sensitive information it contained, the state attorney approved the break-in, and a Pandora’s box burst open with an ear-splitting bang.
Police have been questioning Naveh in recent days on suspicion that he promoted the appointment of a judge to the bench after he had sex with her and tried to promote an incumbent judge with whose wife he also had sex. Police are also looking into many other suspicions against him regarding promotions and appointments. A source who has been privy to the contents of Naveh’s phone told Al-Monitor that they suggest many additional improprieties, not all of them criminal but all deeply flawed from an ethical, public and moral point of view.
Following his interrogation at police headquarters, Naveh resigned from his powerful IBA post on Jan. 17. His line of defense focuses on the claim that the evidence against him was obtained illegally. It is unclear whether this line will hold.
That being said, from the public point of view, Naveh is no longer the one in the line of fire. The crosshairs are targeted from now on Ayelet Shaked. The young politician, popular and charismatic, is coming under fire for the first time in her political career.
Speaking Jan. 17, Shaked said she had become the target of “unprincipled, dishonest and incitement-laden attacks,’’ adding that “the most disappointing of all the attacks is the attack by left-wing female Knesset members.’’
Shaked claims she is being done an injustice, that people are trying to involve her in someone else’s scandal, that she has absolutely no role in what Naveh did or didn’t do, and that people are trying to leverage the affair in order to damage her politically.
The justice minister is right about one thing. Indeed, the political left views her as a serious threat, but it is not the only one. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle has reviled and excluded Shaked since she served as his office manager when he was head of the opposition in the Knesset from 2006 to 2008. At the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, Shaked and her political partner, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, are regarded as the great Satan. This precludes what might have been a natural move — joining the Likud — as long as Netanyahu is at the helm. This is also why she and Bennett formed a new secular-religious party last month, calling it the “New Right.” Now they are no longer weighed down by the edicts of the radical rabbis who serve as spiritual guides of their previous party, national-religious HaBayit HaYehudi, and they can appeal to right-wing non-religious, non-radical voters who have simply had enough of Netanyahu.
Then this storm erupted. The scandal is unlikely to shake the support Shaked enjoys within her political base, and it may even strengthen her standing. She is trying to appeal to a new electorate more inclined to the center of the political map, a strategy that this affair could undermine. She is currently not under any suspicion, and the police have not called her in for questioning under warning. Still, she will probably be summoned to provide testimony about Naveh. The most dramatic question is what the police will do when they come across text messages between the justice minister and Naveh. Will officers be authorized to examine the correspondence? If so, where might it lead? So far, Shaked’s reputation for honesty has not been blemished. Keeping up that pristine image will be much harder from now on.
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