The contest for the next prime minister is again in full swing, now with a new twist. For the first time since Golda Meir, a woman is a leading contender. According to recent polls, Kadima with Tzipi Livni at its helm will outscore Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and Ehud Barak's Labor Party. But will the foreign minister be able to defy the subtle yet relentless gender-based campaign being mounted against her? Will she succeed where Hillary Clinton failed in making it to the top? Livni's appeal to the increasingly cynical if not totally disenchanted electorate is undeniable. Her consistent record of public probity is refreshing. She does not have to overcome the burden of past failures, as do Netanyahu and Barak. And, even if she may not be the political visionary that Israel so desperately needs at the moment, in comparison to her protagonists both within and outside her party, she offers a glimmer of hope for a different future. This is precisely why she is being targeted not only for what she represents but for who she is. The anti-Livni assault, as ruthless as it is systematic, is constructed on deep chauvinistic foundations. The first cornerstone casts doubts on her experience. Apparently the fact that she is an attorney with extensive experience in corporate law (she headed the State Corporations Authority) is unimportant. Neither are her ministerial qualifications - ranging from the Immigrant Absorption, Regional Development and Justice portfolios to the Foreign Ministry and deputy premiership. None of her opponents, with the exception of Meir Sheetrit, boasts a similar array. REAL POLITICAL experience in Israel, it is intimated, actually means something else. It implies an extensive military grounding, which Tzipi Livni does not share with former chiefs of General Staff Barak or Shaul Mofaz, with the ex-head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Avi Dichter, or, for that matter, with elite commando unit officer Netanyahu. Livni's lame efforts to play up her brief stint in the Mossad totally miss the point. The equation of political experience with security careers is not only aimed at excluding women from high office, it is also directed at perpetuating the military-political nexus which has dominated the country's politics for far too long. If Livni wants to deflect such charges, she must dispute their underlying premise. The only convincing route she can take is to highlight her intimate knowledge of security matters while underlining Israel's need for her avowedly civilian worldview. THE SECOND cornerstone of the gender-rooted campaign against Livni goes on to question her decision-making capabilities. The initial phase of this line of attack centered on her tendency to ask too many questions, especially in the security cabinet (coupled with the not-too-refined allegation that if one seeks information, one either does not know enough or, worse, is overly hesitant). Sadly, those purveying these arguments have forgotten the consequences of their own overconfidence, well documented in the Winograd Commission Report. Indecision, however, seems to mean more in the context of the present political race. In Livni's case, it is closely associated with political moderation. All her main rivals are hawks, Barak included. They revel in weighing military options (especially as elections draw nearer). The most extreme example is Mofaz, who in the course of the past week succeeded in creating near panic over a possible Israeli attack on Iran, not to speak of seriously damaging the incipient Syrian-Israeli negotiations with his talk of moving to the Golan. Common to this prevalent bravado is the assumption that there is a direct correlation between hawkish propensities and political decisiveness. Not so. What Livni might offer, if she does not get drawn into this discourse, is the possibility of breaking this often irresponsible and potentially lethal cycle. Rational, systematic, broadly strategic thinking is an immense asset. Should Livni choose to accentuate these traits - which even those who would like her to take them much farther to their logical conclusion admit that she possesses in abundance - she might succeed in restoring both direction and purpose to the Israeli political scene. She may thereby give meaning to moderation, which is not such a bad idea these days. WHEN PROTRACTED discussions of inexperience and indecisiveness do not work, the third cornerstone of the gender campaign is unveiled: Livni is a woman. By implication, the idea of placing a woman at the apex in these uncertain and trying times cannot be serious. Livni, it is hinted, exhibits signs of weakness (or is it femininity?), and so is unworthy of taking over the reins of power. This unabashedly chauvinist barrage suggests that because she is reasonable, unexcitable and demonstrably policy-oriented, she is too fickle. Women in the public arena are damned if they do and damned if they don't. The alternative to quiet thoughtfulness is to be viewed as overly assertive - something Hillary Clinton discovered to be even more electorally off-putting. The only way to avoid this trap is for women leaders to skirt male definitions of political authority. Livni has the possibility of developing her own leadership style which neither conforms to standard views nor panders to their stereotypes. The question is whether she has the courage to do so. The gender barrier is emerging as the single greatest obstacle to political advancement in the 21st century. It is especially impassable where the percentage of women in public office is low (Israel ranks 79th in the world in the latest Inter-Parliamentary Union report; the United States fares no better). The fewer the number of women in elected positions, the harder it is to reach the top. Those who succeed tend to replicate the most debatable characteristics of their male counterparts (vide Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi). Adequate gender representation, as in the Scandinavian countries, Spain and even Rwanda, makes the issue redundant. Tzipi Livni can yet succeed, but only if she consciously decides to ignore the chauvinist-rooted criticism she encounters daily and go her own way. This means taking her moderate propensities - still a far cry from those of Barack Obama - one step further and cultivating a decidedly feminist approach which views understanding for the other as the key to a more just society and regional environment.