Women’s rights groups welcomed Thursday’s announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office that the cabinet was likely to approve on Sunday Israel’s accession to the recently created United Nations entity UN Women.

However, some activists expressed concern that the overall aim of Israel’s membership in this international forum was more focused on bolstering the country’s image abroad, and not necessarily on improving gender equality or advancing the status of women here.

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In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Likud MK Gila Gamliel, deputy minister for the advancement of women, young people and students, wrote, “It is important that Israel join the UN Women’s executive board as soon as possible. Such membership will allow us to block attempts to delegitimize Israel and enable us to stress our country’s positive aspects in the international arena.”

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Gamliel explained: “We have a very good track record with women’s issues, and this is a chance to show the positive side of Israel. We have seen so much ‘delegitimization’ of Israel in these international organizations, with Arab states taking advantage of that, and it is important to be part of such a body in order to show Israel is very advanced in this area.”

While women’s rights activists welcomed the decision to join UN Women, some said they were surprised to see it linked at all to Israel’s hasbara, or public relations, agenda.

“It is very sad that improving human rights and the rights of women in the nation has become part of a strategic move to improve Israel’s image and not necessarily to improve the situation for women in society,” commented lawyer Keren Shemesh-Perlmuter, director of Itach – Women Lawyers for Social Justice.

She added, “We congratulate the state of Israel for its decision to join UN Women, and we hope that this step is not only an effort to halt the criticism of Israel, but instead to bring about genuine discussion and understanding of the status of women in the world and the advancement of Israeli women’s situation locally.”

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari – director of the Rackman Center for Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, as well as vice president of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – said, “Of course [Israel] should take part in every endeavor to promote human rights, and by doing that, we show that we are among the nations that care about human rights. But it is really ridiculous if we are only doing this because we want to block delegitimization. Does it mean that if we were not threatened by delegitimatization, we would not care about human or women’s rights?”

In the Prime Minister’s Office statement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that “since its establishment, the State of Israel has been known as a pioneer in the field of advancing women’s status and has a proven record in the area of gender equality.”

He added that “Israel’s influence in a prominent international body in the field is necessary because the issue of women’s status is a main policy issue for us and because Israel’s contribution to such a body from its inception could be considerable for the countries of the world.”

Halperin-Kaddari responded that while “we do have some very advanced legislation and there are areas [in which] we are in the forefront of the world, such as our employment laws and marital property laws, there is a huge problem of implementation where there is little enforcement or supervision of this legislation.”

Joining UN Women, she continued “is a very positive step, but we still have a lot to learn.”

Halperin-Kaddari, who will hear a report on the status of Israeli women in Geneva next week in her capacity as CEDAW vice president, said that membership in UN Women would hopefully raise awareness of issues related to gender-based violence against women and encourage training of women to allow them to enter politics or the public sphere.

According to information released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Sunday’s cabinet meeting will likely approve the allocation of some NIS 3 million in membership dues for UN Women and establish a steering committee to set policy regarding Israel’s participation in the organization.

UN Women was launched last July as a merger of four previously distinct parts of the UN system – the Division for the Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women and the United Nations Development Fund for Women – all of which dealt with various aspects of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has been appointed executive director and an under-secretary-general.

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