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Gender may have replaced ethnic differences as the "skeleton in the closet" in this election campaign, a feminist group opined on Thursday in response to the public fight this week over the place of women in politics.
The Power for Women Organization, which pushes for more women in positions of authority, issued a statement on Thursday attacking the "cynical use of the gender issue in election propaganda" and accused the heads of the major parties of "not being genuinely interested in women's issues."
The statement followed a week of raucous debate that began when Kadima leader Tzipi Livni told Channel 2's Nissim Mishal early in the week that she was the antithesis of the idea that women did not belong in the power centers where security decisions are made.
On Monday, she told a conference of women's organizations that "the Israeli government does not belong to the generals," and called on women to vote for her in order to bolster the position of women in government.
In response, the Likud ran a television ad starting Wednesday that accused Livni of voting against initiatives to empower women in the workplace, as well as against other measures, many of them proposed by Likud and other opposition MKs.
"When we push women to the fore, it's important that these women are worthy of the position, able to make decisions, which Livni has shown she is not," said Likud Knesset candidate Tzipi Hotovely, one of four women to make it into the party's top slots.
"The most important consideration isn't the candidate's gender, but abilities," said Hotovely, noting that Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, a man, "has done a great deal to advance women's issues as head of the Women's Knesset Caucus."
The fight over the female demographic has heated up because of widespread expectations that a high percentage of women are not planning to vote on February 10. Estimates for undecided women voters have risen to as high as one-third.
The high number of undecideds and low expectations for turnout mean they can be won over, say many political strategists. In a close race for the top between Kadima and Likud, they may even be the deciding bloc - assuming enough of them vote as a bloc.
But other parties have gotten in on the act. Labor chairman Ehud Barak insisted this week that Israel would be "a more efficient and united society if more women broke through the glass ceiling." Israel Beiteinu has taken particular pride in having seven women in the top 20 slots of its Knesset list, and the party has polled as high as 16 Knesset seats.
"It's become fashionable in this election to talk about supporting women. But the ones who are acting on this ideal are those who actually have more women in positions of authority," said Israel Beiteinu Knesset candidate Anastasia Michaeli, a pregnant mother of seven who is ninth on the party's list.
According to Michaeli, "a woman who stays home often works harder than some of those in positions of power, in my opinion. Both have their place and should be appreciated. At the same time, doing both as a pregnant mother in the Knesset is the best example for women."
In a talk to Tel Aviv schoolchildren on Thursday in which she defended her feminist record from the Likud attack, Livni may have spoken for most of the women candidates in commenting that, for her part, she had "entered politics in order to push political agendas I didn't think anyone else was pushing, and not from feminism."
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