Will the 21st Knesset have fewer women?

On International Women’s Day, we took a look at the situation of women in the current election and Israel’s progress over the years.

MALE-HEAVY at the top? Blue and White leaders visit an overlook point near the border with Syria earlier this week. (photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)
MALE-HEAVY at the top? Blue and White leaders visit an overlook point near the border with Syria earlier this week.
(photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)
When the 20th Knesset was sworn into office on March 31, 2015, it contained a record 29 female MKs. After more than a dozen members of Knesset resigned over the next four years, that figure rose to a record-breaking current 35 female MKs – close to 30% of the body.
But when the 21st Knesset is voted into office next month, there’s a good chance that number will drop.
According to the most recent polls, the next Knesset will most likely contain somewhere between 30 and 35 women. Though with several parties hovering near the electoral threshold – and just over a month until the election – a more exact figure is impossible to predict. Yisrael Beytenu, Zehut and Gesher regularly receive either zero or four seats in polls; they have zero, 1 and 2 women, respectively, in their top four spots. The two parties predicted to be the largest in the next Knesset -– Likud and Blue and White – each have only two women in their top 10 spots.
“I think that the situation is quite gloomy in terms of female representation,” said Dr. Reut Itzkovitch-Malka, a lecturer in politics at the Open University, who has written extensively on women in politics. “No matter how you play it, looking at the party lists, we see fewer women that are placed in realistic spots. Based on rough evaluations, female representation is expected to go down in the 21st Knesset.”
The potential for disappointment after these elections is especially acute, considering the positive trend Israel has been on for the past two decades.
“We should be proud, because there has been a steady increase in the number of women in the Knesset since 1999,” said Dr. Chen Friedberg, a lecturer at Ariel University and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Until the 1990s, there were only between 8 and 11 women in the Knesset for five decades.”
But since the 1999 election, when 14 women were elected to the Knesset, female representation has been on the rise, with 21 women voted in in 2009, 27 in 2013 and 29 in the most recent election.
“It’s something to be proud of, but of course it’s not enough,” said Friedberg. “In comparison to the OECD and the world, we are somewhere in the middle, so it’s not that bad – but, of course, we have room for growth.”
Itzkovitch-Malka lauded Israel’s momentum but noted a long road ahead for more equal representation.
“There’s definitely positive progress, and we should all be thankful for it, but at the same time it’s definitely not enough; globally or comparatively, we’re not at a high spot,” she said. “There are many countries that can be proud of a better female representation, and there are absolutely more things we can do.”
Israel is, however, in a much better place than the United States, which has just 25 female senators in the 100-member body, and 102 congresswomen, slightly more than 23% of the legislature. The South African Parliament, meanwhile, has close to 43% women, the Finnish contains 42%, and France has almost 39%.
WHAT IS it about the 2019 elections that seems likely to halt Israel’s upward trend?
“It’s partly the political constellation that we see in these elections,” said Itzkovitch-Malka. “It’s an effect of the effort of trying to bring down Netanyahu’s reign – bringing as many generals as possible to politics,” she said, referencing the newly formed Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.
While the Likud’s female representation is about the same as 2015, the center-left parties have not given women the prominence they saw in the last election.
“The [Blue and White] list came together in a few hours,” said Friedberg, and she said that while there are no women in the top five, there are a considerable number throughout the list. Blue and White has six women in its top 20, and nine in its first 30 slots. The Likud has only three women in its first 20 seats, and eight in its top 30.
Unlike Blue and White, whose electoral slate was hand-selected by its party leaders, the Likud held a primary to determine its running order. In this case, said Itzkovitch-Malka, neither system was beneficial to women.
“Research shows across the board that democratic primary processes are not beneficial to female representation,” she said. “It takes a lot of resources in order to nominate yourself and to run in a primary –- how familiar you are, connections, social capital – and these are all resources that men enjoy more than women.”
Right-wing parties, she said – with the exception this year of the New Right led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – “are not very good in terms of the number of women they traditionally put on their lists.” Comparatively, both Labor and Meretz have four women in their top 10 slots.
Friedberg noted that there are numerous factors contributing to women’s low participation rates in Israeli politics.
“They need to juggle between work and kids and home... they have a lot more to consider and a lot more at stake,” she said. She also pointed out that the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have zero women on their lists, for ideological reasons, and the Arab parties have only more recently begun to include women.
The Hadash-Ta’al list includes two women in its top 10 slots, and the Balad-Ra’am list – which is currently under threat of partial disqualification – also has two.
While the number of female MKs may initially drop in the 21st Knesset, the number could still climb during its years in power. The Norwegian Law – which allows ministers to resign from the Knesset and make way for an additional MK – could bring more women into office. And MKs – particularly the several currently facing police investigation – could choose to resign for other reasons.
No matter the makeup of the 21st Knesset, Itzkovitch-Malka said there are several concrete steps that Israeli society can take to boost female representation.
“Quotas are the main institutional mechanism that signals to women ‘we want you, we want to include you, we want to incorporate you in politics,” she said, and “coming from the parties, that means a lot.”
But, she noted, the guidance needs to start even earlier.
“First and foremost we need to work on education,” she said. “Just like we do in the STEM professions [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]... we need to work with women from when they are in primary school, persuading them that politics is suitable for women, just as it is for men.”
While the field has long been considered a masculine profession, “in particular because of the overdominance of security issues,” she said, those perceptions can be changed.
“If we work on educating them [school-age women] and educating our society to look at politics as something which is more gender-neutral,” said Itzkovitch-Malka, “that would probably encourage more women to enter politics.”