About two weeks ago, Na'amat President Talia Livni tossed an important idea into the public arena: She wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the heads of the Knesset factions that the time has come to appoint a woman as president of the state. In reply, she has received two polite letters from officials (it seems likely that they are women), confirming that her letter had been received.
Livni is right - the time has come. But politics, the media and society are not ripe for this very logical and correct idea. Among all the predictable names that have been mentioned recently as potential candidates to replace President Moshe Katsav when he completes his term next year, there is not a single woman. The list includes a former chief rabbi (Yisrael Lau), a soon to be former president of the Supreme Court (Aharon Barak), a former Knesset speaker (Likud MK Reuven Rivlin), a former defense minister (National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer) and one eternal minister (Vice Premier Shimon Peres).
Israeli presidents are usually flesh of the flesh of the political establishment that chooses them, an establishment in which women are conspicuously and annoyingly absent. Less than 15 percent of the members of the current Knesset are women (17 out of 120), and less than 10 percent of the cabinet ministers are women (2 out of 24). In local government, the situation is even gloomier: Less than 3 percent of local authority heads are women, and women account for only 15 percent of the members of local councils. Although a woman was recently appointed to the position of Knesset speaker, this is primarily thanks to the personality and determination of Kadima MK Dalia Itzik and the political constellation that emerged in the wake of the elections. The Supreme Court, too, will soon be headed by a woman, but this must be attributed to the seniority system that is customary in this institution, as well as to the fact that the Israeli judiciary system is the only public system in which women have attained a status almost equal to that of men.
Not only are women meagerly represented in the Knesset, but there are political parties that do not put women on their lists on principle (the ultra-Orthodox parties), and others in which women are blocked by internal struggles (the Arab parties). Only the parties that reserved realistic slots for women on their lists before the elections have women representatives.
Not only are there hardly any women in the government, but even the Authority for the Advancement of Women in the Prime Minister's Office is mainly a hothouse for political appointments. Olmert is reserving the chairmanship of the authority for Mirit Danon, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's secretary - an esteemed and impressive woman, but one who lacks the experience and background necessary for the position. Therefore, for the time being, the appointment looks like a sinecure.
The commitment to equality on the part of the person who heads the body that is supposed to advance women in the civil service and set an example for Israeli society as a whole, and the employment market in particular, is dubious. In his recently published debut novel, Avir Psagot ("Wind in the Peaks"), Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander categorizes the female gender into two main types - feminists with thick legs and hairy underarms, who are repulsive, and feminists with shapely legs and short skirts, who arouse lust. Given this, and in light of the fact that he has held the position for 10 years, it is easy to understand why women constitute a majority of the civil service but occupy only 27 percent of its senior positions.
Israel's public discourse, economy and society are still prisoners of insufferable stereotypes. The message is ancient and clear: Women are good for sex and the kitchen, not for leadership. A woman in the President's Residence would send a message of political maturity and social commitment to equality - two goals that require determination and leadership by the highest echelons. The position of president is mainly symbolic, and therein also lies the importance of a woman holding that position. A worthy woman in the President's Residence would inject different, fresh norms into the public discourse. She would constitute a clear role model and attest to the fact that women, too, can penetrate the bastions of power, a mission that today looks impossible to most women.
Just as democracy is not a natural stage in human development, but rather something that is made by human hands, so is equality. In Rwanda, which has known brutal civil wars, the most egalitarian parliament in the world now presides - 49 percent of its members are women, thanks to quotas that were set by the country's leadership. Forty-three percent of Slovenia's representatives in the European Union parliament are women. About 30 percent of the members of the Parliament of Europe are women. In the 25 countries that belong to the EU, the average representation of women in national parliaments is 31 percent, and in national governments, it is 24 percent. In Spain's government, there is equality between the sexes; in the governments of Austria and Sweden, women are the majority. Finland, Latvia and Ireland have women presidents, and in France, a woman is running for the presidency. In the United States, a possible battle for the White House is developing between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY).
In Israel, there is no dearth of worthy female candidates - professors, judges, artists, scientists, educators, caregivers. For Olmert, who has already appointed two women to senior positions in his government and one to head the Knesset, this could be his finest hour. It could be the finest hour of the entire male establishment that controls the country. They must not miss this opportunity.
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