(photo credit: GPO)
In Golda, a new biography of Golda Meir, author Elinor Burkett writes of her fiesty subject's frustration when confronting the sexism that at times kept her from receiving major leadership positions, including when she was stopped from becoming head of the Jewish Agency in 1946, when most of the other Zionist movement leadership had been arrested by the British.
"The religious Zionists, a key part of he coalition that enabled Labor to govern, balked. 'Kudos to a smart and energetic woman,' read an article in Hatzofeh, an Orthodox newspaper. 'But it is impossible to put Golda at the head of the most important thing of the Jewish people. This is not a position for a woman.'" Similar objections kept her off the government's first proto-cabinet in 1948, and defeated a plan to install her as Tel Aviv mayor in the 1950s.
Golda got the last laugh, of course. The tough broad hailed by David Ben-Gurion as "the only man in my cabinet" (or words to that effect, as the reputed original quote can't be reprinted here) outlasted and out-persevered her detractors, finally ascending to the Prime Minister's Office in 1969 thanks to the sudden death of Levi Eshkol and her emergence as an elder stateswoman compromise-candidate between warring factions of the Labor Party.
Golda was hailed as a feminist pioneer, one of the very first female leaders of any modern government to ascend to the top without benefit of a family or marital connection. In retrospect, though, her tenure in the Prime Minister's Office seems far more of a happenstance aberration in local politics than a forerunner of things to come.
More than three decades later, no other woman has ever come close to Golda's prominence in Israeli public life - until now. As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's legal and political hurdles keep growing, so do the odds that in the coming months he will be succeeded, at least temporarily, by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
And maybe not just for an interim period, if Olmert should resign in the event of an indictment being issued as a result of the latest corruption allegations against him. The FM surely had to be pleased with poll results published this week that showed her as not only the preferred choice both within and without Kadima, but surprisingly even leading the party to victory in a general election over a Binyamin Netanyahu-led Likud and an Ehud Barak-led Labor.
Still, Livni's succession will not go unchallenged within Kadima, where Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit has already declared his determination to push for a party primary in which he will compete with her for the leadership spot. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter are also seen as likely contenders.
What role, if any, would her gender play in Livni's chances to follow Golda's path to the top slot? Would she even be facing an internal party challenge if she wasn't a woman?
Times have changed since Golda's day, in ways that favor Livni's prospects. Although the haredi Shas faction, a key to the current coalition, may not tolerate any females among its own MKs, sources in the party have told the press they are prepared to serve in a government headed by a woman (unofficially, the party does have influential female voices in its ranks, although it helps to be a daughter or a daughter-in-law of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef).
Most of the major secular parties boast senior female representation, such as Education Minister Yuli Tamir of Labor, and her Likud predecessor Limor Livnat, another change for the better since Golda's day.
But in the intervening years, Israel has actually slid backwards in comparison with other Western democracies. Female representation on the parliamentary and ministerial levels has definitely fallen below the standards set by North America and Europe; for example, more than half of Spain's new cabinet is female, including the defense minister.
Livni, like Golda, would only attain the top spot at first by default, filling a sudden vacancy without having to a win a general election. In contrast, leaders such as the UK's Margaret Thatcher and Germany's Angela Merkel triumphed in clear-cut electoral victories, while Hillary Clinton has proved herself a serious contender for the US presidency in a way that no woman has done so for the Israel premiership since Golda. Even such developing societies as Liberia and Chile have now elected female leaders untainted by the type of dynastic connections that have previously aided such women as Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto to gain power.
Livni had her own advantageous familial connections, starting out in Likud politics as a "Herut princess," the daughter of Revisionist movement hero Eitan Livni. But her relatively swift rise to the top is credited more to her own smarts, toughness, and most of all a loyalty to Ariel Sharon that paid off big time when the Kadima split from Likud enabled her to leapfrog a few political stations.
Livni's recent rise in the polls can likely be credited to a reputation for avoiding the kind of borderline wheeling-and-dealing that has made trouble in the past (and present) for Olmert, Barak and Netanyahu, and the fact that she emerged relatively unscathed from the Winograd Committee's report on the Second Lebanon War.
By itself, though, that hardly qualifies one to become prime minister, and it is not without justification that the more experienced Sheetrit, Mofaz and Barak view themselves as more appropriate replacements for Olmert than their younger colleague.
The latter two especially, if and when the time comes when they find themselves in contention with Livni, will surely draw on their extensive military resumes to argue they make more suitable candidates for prime minister than the FM.
And here, in a nutshell, is why Livni's gender is going to matter at some point, if Olmert's political situation further deteriorates. Security credentials still matter greatly in this society, and not without reason, especially as Israel finds itself having to contend with the growing challenges of Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. Indeed, the failures during the Second Lebanon War are widely blamed in part on the fact that no one among the senior political leadership had the kind of top-level security background that might have enabled them to knowledgeably challenge the battle strategy pursed by then-IDF chief Dan Halutz.
Unfortunately, no Israeli woman is going to get the chance to earn those kind of stripes until the military takes even greater feminist strides forward than the political establishment, which isn't going to happen until there are more women in top governmental posts to lobby for those changes - the kind of circular-reasoning trap, all too common in military thinking, that Joseph Heller memorably dubbed as a "Catch-22."
Livni does in fact have her own security background to draw on; unfortunately, this being some kind of classified service in the Mossad, it's a little difficult for her or anyone else to draw on it as a political advantage.
So, how her candidacy as Olmert's most likely replacement is judged in the public arena during the coming weeks and months will prove an interesting test of just where the status of women, at the very highest of leadership, stands in the Israel of today.
Regardless of that, and however else one judges her performance in the offices she has held, there is no question the foreign minister will now have to demonstrate better skills of a purely political nature than Livni has thus far shown herself capable of, if she is to take advantage of her coming moment in the sun.
At least in this, if nothing else, Tzipi Livni would be wise to look back on the example of Golda Meir - a woman who played the game of Israeli party politics with a hand no less shrewd, and no less tough, than any man in these parts before or since.