Tzipi Livni and Ayelet Shaked.
Never before in Israel’s short history has there been such a large feminine representation in the Knesset, a fitting fact to note on International Women’s Day. A total of 33 female MKs now serve in the Knesset.
According to a study published last year by Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute, the share of women in the Israeli Knesset is now higher than in the US Senate (20%) or the House of Representatives (19.4%). And Israel only slightly lags behind the OECD average when it comes to women’s legislative representation.
But while the number of women serving has increased dramatically, does this mean that the objective of gender equality in politics is on its way to being solved in Israel? Only three out of the 21 ministers (14%) in the cabinet are women, far behind the OECD average of about 30%.
And in France, Norway, Sweden, Italy and Canada there are gender-balanced cabinets.
A major obstacle to the advancement of women in politics is the IDF. In Israel, combat experience, preferably as a high-ranking commander, is seen as a precondition for political leadership. Dozens of IDF commanders succeeded in making the transition from the IDF. And this is only natural considering the high level of importance security issues command in Israeli discourse. With existential dangers presented by Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South, a hostile Palestinian population in the West Bank and more far-flung conflicts such as those in Syria, Iran and the Sinai Peninsula, it is only natural that security issues have consistency dominated political discourse and political campaigns.
No political leader who aspires to become prime minister can remain silent on matters of security, though he or she can succeed perfectly well without an economic policy or a clear position on health and education. This simple fact puts women at a distinct disadvantage, and this will remain the case as long as security remains the single most important issue of concern to Israelis.
Looking at present trends, there is little reason to believe that the situation for women in national politics will improve. With Shelly Yacimovitch focusing her energies on the Histadrut, the race for the leadership of Labor is completely male-dominated. Tzipi Livni is working to put together a center-left coalition that would be led by someone chosen in a primary election. And Meretz, the only party with female leadership, has practically lost its relevance as a political force.
On the Right the situation is no better. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced this week that she plans to run for prime minister one day, though not in the short term.
But there is no woman who can conceivably challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and there are two political parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – that openly block women from running on their Knesset lists.
What should be done to remedy the situation? One step would be to consider banning parties like Shas and UTJ that categorically block women from participating.
The Knesset is an institution that should promote democracy, and participation in the democratic process should be conditional upon upholding the basic tenets of a modern democracy. Gender equality is one of those tenets.
A case could be made for gender-based affirmative action as well. Studies have found that in societies in which there is gender bias, the appointment of women can bring about a change in attitudes. Giving voters a chance to observe the effectiveness of women leaders can help do away with stereotypes.
On the other hand, utilizing affirmative action in politics is undemocratic in that it can override voters’ choices. This is the case in political parties that choose their lists based on primaries. In contrast, this is not the case in political parties that choose their lists in a process that is in any event undemocratic.
Gender-based quotas could also reinforce stereotypes that women are not worthy of election based on their merits.
Ideally, a more egalitarian integration of women in high-ranking political roles on the national level should be the natural outgrowth of education and the gradual eradication of biases and bigotry, not the result of coercive state actions.
As long as security issues continue to feature so prominently in Israel, it will likely be some time before women are equally represented in the most influential political positions. Still, with nearly 30% of the Knesset made up of women, Israel has come a long way.
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