In the final hours of Wednesday evening, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid announced that he had managed to form a coalition after a series of marathon negotiations with the various leaders of the anti-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu camp.
This government has yet to be formally sworn in, and much could happen until it is. However, should Lapid succeed in establishing it, it will be the most politically diverse one in Israeli history.
The proposed government, led first by Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and then Lapid, includes parties from the Israeli left, right, political center, with one Islamist party. It would also have a record number of women.
Of the 61 seats in this coalition, nearly a third (19 seats) are women – a record 30.6 percent and eight of them would receive cabinet positions – an all-time high. Among the women who would serve in the government are Labor head Merav Michaeli, who is poised to be transportation minister, Yamina’s No. 2 Ayelet Shaked as interior minister (and then justice minister according to the rotation agreement), Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg as environmental protection minister, and New Hope’s Yifat Shasha-Biton as education minister. Kahol Lavan’s Pnina Tamano-Shata is expected to retain her post as immigration and absorption minister.
Many of the other posts have yet to be determined as negotiations are ongoing despite the overall agreement reached to form a government. But Prof. Ofer Kenig, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told Haaretz that even if the Bennett-Lapid government does indeed take office, there is still much room for improvement. “While this is a new high for Israel, it is still below the standard in most OECD nations,” he said. “Second, only one of the eight women are set to serve in what are regarded as top-tier senior positions such as the ministers of defense, finance or foreign affairs. Ayelet Shaked, who is slated to serve as interior minister in the new government, would be the highest ranking woman in the cabinet.”
Women are historically underrepresented in government in Israel, not just in the number of lawmakers in the Knesset but also in holding key positions such as speaker or deputy speaker of the Knesset, and as chairs of Knesset committees.
A Knesset report released last year found that Israel ranked 83rd out of the 189 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union with regard to women’s representation in the legislature. Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members, Israel was 27th out of 36.
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And while significantly more women than ever would serve in the incoming government, only 29 women were elected to the Knesset in March – compared to 32 in the previous election – so female lawmakers will comprise less than a quarter of the Knesset.
Israel has had one female prime minister, Golda Meir, and nearly had another in Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, sometimes referred to as the best prime minister that Israel never had.
After serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Ehud Olmert, Livni gained the highest number of seats in the 2009 election. However, her inability to form a government sent her into the opposition and ushered in the second reign of Netanyahu for 12 long years.
Although there has been a gradual rise in women’s representation over the years, the number of women serving in the government has been consistently low, rarely more than four. This number jumped to eight following the Likud-Kahol Lavan unity government formed in March 2020, but as that was the largest government ever formed in Israel, the percentage of female members remained low at 23.5 percent.
To put things in perspective, the percentage of women in the Canadian government led by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party is 33.1, women occupy 26.5 percent of the 535 seats in the United States Congress (comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate), and in the United Kingdom, which owns a lion’s share of the blame for Israel’s mongrel political system, women occupy only 23.8 percent of seats in the ruling Conservative party.
The Bennett-Lapid government would be unprecedentedly diverse in other ways as well.
Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz, the first openly gay leader of an Israeli political party, is set to receive the health portfolio. He would be only the third openly gay cabinet minister after Likud’s Amir Ohana, who is the current public security minister, and former Labor lawmaker Itzik Shmuli, who controversially agreed to join the Netanyahu government last year to serve as social affairs minister (he later resigned).
This would be the first government to include an Arab party, Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List. The government would also include a record eight Israeli Arab lawmakers from various parties: the four lawmakers from the UAL, Labor’s Ibtisam Mara’ana and Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Esawi Freige, with Freige serving as regional cooperation minister.
While several Arab lawmakers have served in the position of deputy Knesset speaker, only two other Arab lawmakers have previously held ministerial portfolios: Labor’s Salah Tarif was minister without portfolio and Raleb Majadele was science, culture and sport minister.
Who would be part of a Bennett-Lapid government is as important as who would not be included in it. For the first time in six years, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, who do not allow women to run for the Knesset, would not be a part of the government. In the days before the March election, Shas leader Arye Dery noted that political leadership “isn’t a natural place” for women.
The racist and supremacist Religious Zionism party, including the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and homophobic and misogynist Noam factions, would no longer be in the government. Itamar Ben-Gvir’s and Avi Maoz’s five minutes in government will have to sustain them once they are sitting in the opposition.
The rest of us can look forward to the sight of Ben-Gvir and Maoz forced to face the victorious Merav Michaeli, Ibtisam Mara’ana and Tamar Zandberg across the aisle from the losers’ seats in the Knesset.