Several dozen women met in Vienna last week under the auspices of the United Nations to discuss advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. One after another, polished black limousines stopped at the entrance to the Hofburg Palace, and from each emerged a woman - 15 presidents and foreign ministers from around the world. They were joined by 20 women from the Palestinian Authority and 20 from Israel, including past and present Knesset members and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Labor MK Colette Avital also took a brief break from her presidential campaign to participate in the discussions, which were headed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik.
Beyond the commitment to making peace, the conference expressed solidarity and recognition of the reinforcement of female power in the international arena, a process whose influence has also been evident in Israel during the past year. A woman, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish, has taken her place as head of the judiciary; at the head of the legislative authority is a woman, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik; and there is even a chance that a woman, Tzipi Livni, will head the executive authority if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is forced to cede his place and new elections are not held.
Avital's presidential candidacy has also contributed to the change in consciousness that Israeli society has undergone regarding the status of women. It was just less than a year ago that the idea of a woman as president was greeted with skepticism, even scorn. There were those who saw the idea as a caprice that did not stand a chance and was divorced from reality, while political commentators simply ignored the scenario. Every time they enumerated the leading figures in the gallery of candidates for the position, Avital was not mentioned. Many months passed before it emerged that she was determined, and there are those taking her seriously.
A worthy woman in the President's Residence would not only bring different and fresh norms into the public discourse, but also represent a successful role model and a signal that women can penetrate the bastions of power - a mission that appears nearly impossible for most of them. Israeli women are going around in a vicious circle: The fewer who reach key positions of power and influence, the less they influence others to follow in their footsteps.
Precisely with the entirely symbolic role of the president is a real symbol needed at this time - a woman who will soften the macho and bullying image of the state. However, two of the three candidates running for election this week symbolize the "old boys' network," the male-political network that has been controlling the country for decades.
Last year, it seemed, if only for a brief moment, that Israeli society was ripe for a revolution of consciousness when it elected two civilians to lead the country. It's still too early to decide whether this was an accident of history, while the renewed reliance on generals and admirals to shoulder the burden is, in fact, the true expression of the public's desires. The election of a woman to the presidency, which is conducted by a closed club of mainly male voters who do not necessarily express the desires of those who voted them in, could provide a clear answer to this question.
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