Israel is usually described as a Western democracy. It is true in most areas, especially when the country is compared to its neighbors and the Middle East in general. Israeli democracy is vibrant and alive. It has a free press (even if it happens to be subject to attacks by the prime minister) and lively individual and human rights organizations. The political arena is in a state of constant turmoil, with parties rising and disintegrating. In fact, the Israeli electorate often surprises itself. Any time you have three Jews, you will always have four opinions at least. It’s a well-known phenomenon, so it should come as no surprise that this happens in Israeli politics too. All in all, what we have is a real celebration of democracy.
But there are also many areas where Israel cannot pride itself on having obtained such positives stats. The representation of women in positions of power is one area, where Israel’s democracy still lags noticeably behind the other democracies of the West. The nineteenth Knesset, voted in last January, has a record number of women. About a quarter of this new Knesset’s members are women, but that still represents only half of their proportion in the total population, less than the standard in the West. Furthermore, women are conspicuously absent from many other important fields. Few women serve in top administrative positions in Israel. The number of women serving on the boards of directors, as CEOs, or in senior positions in banking, industry, and other important sectors is significantly lower than the accepted norm. Israeli women are bold and assertive, talented and tenacious, but they still have a long way to go to achieve full equality, or even something resembling equality, in any position where they might have influence, authority, and power over men.
The most blatant example of this disconcerting fact is the various governments of Israel. The percentage of women in Israel’s government has always been miniscule; sometimes it was downright insulting. The last Netanyahu cabinet, for example, had 31 ministers, of which only three were women. That’s less than 10 percent. It would be hard to go any lower than that. True, a woman named Golda Meir once served as the country’s prime minister, but she was described as being “more of a man” than all the men surrounding her. Furthermore, Meir became prime minister under extraordinary circumstances, which have never repeated themselves. The woman who came closest to repeating Golda’s great achievement was [HaTenua leader] Tzipi Livni, who made it to the finish line but was defeated by a combination of chauvinism and political constraints imposed on her.
Why is there such a glaring absence of women in the political arena? There are objective reasons for this. Israeli politics is macho, aggressive, and chauvinistic. It is bursting with libidos and sharp elbows. It is demanding too, and requires that an enormous amount of energy be invested in it, even if this means abandoning any semblance of private life or functional family. When taking this as a starting point, women are already faced with an especially onerous obstacle, especially since society still demands that women be responsible for the well-being of the family. Israeli politics is also infamous for its overabundance of wheeling and dealing, its questionable allegiances, and deals that are only semi-legal, if at all. Accounts of vote-buying, the use of voting “contractors,” and the elimination of political rivals are published here on a regular basis. To their credit, women tend less to engage in those kinds of shenanigans. Israel has not invented something new in this field. And yet, while other countries may also contend with aggressive, shady politics, they still have more women involved in politics.
The other obstacle, which really prevents women from reaching the highest echelons of political power in Israel, is the military. Israel is the only nation in the world that still lives by the sword. It is a country whose continued existence remains in doubt. It is surrounded by enemies who constantly threaten to drown it in a turbulent sea of enmity. Without a menacing army, the country itself would cease to exist. That is why one of the most important springboards to the pinnacles of Israeli politics is the military establishment. Israel has been ruled by its generals for over a generation. Chiefs-of-staff, generals, former heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet, and former chiefs of police, anyone, in fact, that ever fought in Israel’s wars or devoted his life to the security of the state, is considered fit and able to stand at the nation’s helm.
The average Israeli is worried about housing prices, the steep cost of living, the ultra-Orthodox takeover, and the quality of education, but in the end of the day, when he walks into the voting booth, he will end up voting according to the candidates’ ranking on the “security index.” In other words, Israelis vote in response to the question: “Who will protect us from the Arabs better?” That is the only reason that a particularly unsuccessful prime minister like Benjamin Netanyahu could cling to power, if only by his fingernails, in the recent elections, which otherwise signified his total defeat. True, [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] Bibi was not a general (he was a captain in the Matkal commando unit), but he is perceived as the “originator of the Iranian threat” and as the person best able to stand up to it, or at least to give a speech about it in the United Nations. In any other country, Bibi would have been forced to give up the reins of power long ago. And yet he’s still with us, and it’s all because of the security issue.
Given this, it is easy to understand why relatively few women make their way into politics. They are familiar with the situation from the outset. They know that only a miracle can bring them to positions of real leadership. They realize that when push comes to shove, the “defense junta” is ultimately in charge, and only men whose epaulets once sagged under the most impressive insignia are considered fit to lead this nation under siege in Zion.
But that’s not the only problem. Israel also has its ultra-Orthodox population. Their numbers are growing rapidly, and they crossed the 10 percent threshold long ago. This sector completely excludes women, as if they didn’t exist at all, almost like one would find in Islamic states like Iran or Saudi Arabia. And then Israel also has Arabs. They are more than 20 percent of the total population. True, the situation among the Arabs isn’t exactly like it is among the ultra-Orthodox. An Arab woman pops up as a member of Knesset every now and again. But women are generally excluded in this sector too. For an Arab woman to be elected to the Knesset, she will need a series of special circumstances and a host of miracles. In other words, about one-quarter of all women in Israel are excluded from any potential constellation of power from the very outset, which may explain the current numbers.
So what happened in the last elections? There are now a record number of women in the Knesset. In fact, about one-quarter of all Knesset members are women. It is worth noting that this happened in tandem with the draconian law imposed on army officers and other senior members of the defense establishment, which prevented them from entering politics in the three years immediately following their release from service. While this law is inherently problematic, it may actually remove one longstanding obstacle preventing women from entering politics. It may be the reason why there are more women legislators in Israel’s nineteenth Knesset. Women in Israel are moving in the right direction, despite a high entry bar and enormous obstacles along the way. Still, they have a long and winding road ahead of them.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.
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