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Israel's Blue and White Boys Club Wants Your Vote

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The top four of Kahol Levan, headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, hold a joint press conference after announcing the formation of the new alliance, Tel Aviv, February 21, 2019.
The top four of Kahol Levan, headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, hold a joint press conference after announcing the formation of the new alliance, Tel Aviv, February 21, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The events that turned Israeli politics upside down Wednesday night gave new meaning to the phrase “general election.” Literally, it is an election full of generals – or, to be even more precise, former chiefs of staff.

The newborn Blue and White alliance (in Hebrew, Kahol Lavan) was celebrated in a buddy-movie Instagram photo taken after a long night of negotiations. It featured three men who had commanded the Israeli army, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and the newest soldier to join the ranks battling to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 9 – Gabi Ashkenazi.

Rounding out the quartet is the sole non-general: Former journalist and television personality Yair Lapid.

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Noticeably missing in the Insta-snapshot of the new centrist kid on the block: Any sign of a woman in this blue and white landscape. The fact the portrait of these four amigos is the dominant image of Israel’s new political reality is depressingly reflective of the minimal female presence in the highest levels of government.

Male dominance is certainly nothing new in Israeli politics. A combination of springboarding military men into power and religious political players who view female leadership as taboo have always posed a challenge to women in Israeli politics. There are some notable exceptions, of course, like former Prime Minister Golda Meir and Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), who made her name as Israel Defense Forces spokesperson and military censor.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris talking with U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren during President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in Washington, February 5, 2019.Credit: \ LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

In 2019, though, the failure of women to become players at the highest political levels in Israel stands out at a time where so many women are throwing their hats in the ring to be president of the United States and when key Western countries (Great Britain, Germany) are led by women.

The latest developments in the 2019 election campaign seem to have shifted the status of women from not-so-great to pretty darn bad.

First, Tzipi Livni – Israel’s most senior female political presence – was forced to exit the political stage after it became clear she was viewed as political kryptonite by the men at the top of the country’s centrist and center-left parties. After her rude dismissal from Zionist Union by Labor leader Avi Gabbay in January, no other party wanted her. After realizing she had no chance of drawing enough political support to overcome the electoral threshold, she said her goodbyes this week.

Now, Orli Levi-Abekasis and her Gesher party have been snubbed by Gantz in favor of that alliance with Lapid’s Yesh Atid, scuttling what looked like the most promising prospect of anointing a new and young female leader.

Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis, January 16, 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

And with very little room left at the top, the fairly respectable initial female representation in Gantz and Lapid’s parties has significantly dissipated by virtue of their electoral alliance. The parties’ joint slate has no women in the top six slots. Miki Haimovich is seventh and Orna Barbivai – herself Israel’s first female major general – 10th. Only eight of the slate’s 30 candidates are female.

One advantage of personality-driven parties like Gantz and Lapid’s has been the fact that, unlike parties whose top dogs were determined by primaries, the leaders could design a slate to reflect diverse groups – and presumably attract more voters by promising wider representation.

Lapid pioneered this method when he formed Yesh Atid’s first slate in 2013, bringing in a mix of fresh and diverse female faces. He has remained conscious of those optics, with a final count of four women in his top 10 (with Barbivai the highest ranked). Gantz’s list has been significantly less impressive than Lapid’s, with one woman – former news anchor Haimovich – in the fourth slot and two more squeezed in at ninth and 10th.

As for the other parties, the Likud primary left the top of its slate fairly bereft of women: Two female ministers, Regev and Gila Gamliel, are numbers 6 and 10, respectively, with only one other woman, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, placed in the top 20 (16th).

Labor and Meretz, two parties where women hold solid leadership roles (the latter led by Tamar Zandberg), are expected to suffer in this new political landscape where the prospect of ending the Netanyahu era is likely to cause left-wing voters to swing toward Gantz and Lapid.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg outside her party headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2019.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

While no polls have been done since the Kahol Lavan alliance was born, both Meretz and Gesher – the only two parties with women at the helm – were not polling in high numbers and are in real danger of disappearing off the political map.

In the new landscape, the unlikely prize for respectable female representation goes to the newly formed right-wing party Hayamin Hehadash. Not only is the party led by a male-female partnership (Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked), but Shaked’s name comes first on its logo.

Hayamin Hehadash candidate Alona Barkat, left, with party co-leader Ayelet Shaked, February 20, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Bennett and Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash is the only party with a female majority at the top: four of the six candidates heading the list are women, including political newcomers Alona Barkat, the owner of Hapoel Be’er Sheva soccer club, and hawkish journalist Caroline Glick.

Even a female-friendly left-wing party like Labor couldn’t resist the power of the generals. After MKs Stav Shaffir, Shelly Yacimovich and Merav Michaeli triumphed in the party primary earlier this month and finished high on the slate, party leader Avi Gabbay pushed all three down a slot on Wednesday when, with much fanfare, he unveiled his new acquisition: Tal Russo – a former IDF general, naturally.

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