The incoming government that is likely to be formed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to have the lowest number of women in years.
This is because women will only have a bit more than 10% of the seats in the majority coalition. Women are projected to have just eight seats among the prospective coalition partners of Likud, Shas, the Religious Zionist Party and United Torah Judaism.
This is a historic shame for Israel because in recent years the number of women in top ministerial and Knesset roles has grown. The outgoing government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid had 24 women within the governing coalition. It also had seven women in ministerial roles. The outgoing coalition also had a female party leader in Labor’s Merav Michaeli, and it had the highest representation of women of any government in the country’s history.
Ultra-Orthodox parties openly, purposely discriminate against women
On the one hand, the shift to having fewer women could be seen as a momentary change; parties come and go and so do governments, so some will have fewer women than others.
However, the reality is that this is not just a question of a slight shift in the number of women that will be in the governing coalition’s parties; it is also about ideology and the fact that we have parties in Israel that refuse to have any women in their slate elected to the Knesset. These parties purposely and openly discriminate against women.
The issue of Orthodox parties segregating women and keeping them out of the Knesset has been contentious for years. In 2018, Prof. Ofer Kenig and Dr. Chen Friedberg wrote that “Women comprise approximately half of the population. It is therefore inconceivable that a democratic country should allow parties to forbid women, explicitly, from taking part in their activity. The absolute exclusion of women from ultra-Orthodox parties keeps their specific interests from being addressed effectively in the public sphere.”
Their report noted that a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute that examined the activity patterns of members of the 17th and 18th Knessets found that “the view that men represent women as well as women represent themselves, and that men work as hard as women do to promote women’s interests, is false.”
While Israel was doing better in the last decade in terms of women rising to higher levels in government and their numbers increasing in the Knesset, the country still lags behind other democracies.
For instance, by 2018, only four of 21 ministers were women. The OECD average has increased from 30% several years ago to 34% last year, and some countries have cabinets that have an equal number of women, or more women than men in charge. The trend is also clear in parliaments in general, where more women are being elected. Israel appears to be going in the opposite direction.
Israelis will have a chance to go to the polls eventually. But for now, the coalition that looks set to rule will be a male coalition that lacks women.
Even within the non-Orthodox parties, such as Likud, there is an absence of women at the top levels. The incoming government has few opportunities to rectify this problem, having not put women at the top of the electoral lists, it is unclear how they will end up with top ministers who are women.
It’s a shame to see Israel, which has made major strides in terms of empowering women and minorities and becoming a modern democratic state, have so many parties close to power that openly discriminate against women.
In a Middle East that is changing, where we are witnessing Iran’s crackdown on women protesters; and where we are seeing countries in the Gulf attempt to liberalize their politics, Israel should be doing much more to be a light unto the nations in terms of gender equality.
This election illustrated that a swath of the public is willing to go to the polls and not demand their representatives include women’s voices.
Unfortunately, Israel will now have to wait – likely until the next election – to see a coalition that reflects wider society.