As the opening bell sounds for the 2019 Knesset election, Israel’s women are poised to play a more prominent role than ever.
Although new political parties are still forming and established parties splitting and realigning, advocates for women are cautiously optimistic that after a record showing in 2015 – when women finally comprised over a quarter of the Knesset – the April 9 election will boost female representation still higher and push women's issues further to the fore.
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The timing could not be better, says Michal Gera Margaliot, managing director of the Israel Women's Network, which has been focusing on female equality for over 30 years.
“2018 was an incredible year for women,” she says. “There was the #MeToo movement, which began the previous year; the impressive gains for women in Israel’s municipal elections; and the inspiration of their showing in the U.S. midterms, which women were a big part of.”
That was capped by “the biggest women’s protest Israel has ever seen: The demonstration and strike fighting violence against women, at the beginning in December. We believe the women’s voice is crucial and relevant today, and we have become a political power to contend with,” Margaliot adds.
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She says her organization has a strategy for every part of the election race – party primaries, the campaign and governing coalition negotiations, all aimed at the long-term goal of 50/50 gender representation in society and a guarantee that, in Israel’s future, “women will be in every single room that decisions are made.”
Political consultant Dahlia Scheindlin believes the number of women “stands to rise – the momentum is there.” Gains in the recent municipal races were a positive sign of what she calls a “a neo-feminist wave.”
Naomi Chazan, a former MK and now co-director of the Van Leer Institute’s Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere, is more cautious, though. “There’s no reason to be exhilarated,” she says. “Right now, I wouldn’t say I anticipate that much progress in representation, to be quite honest.”
She points to the traditional barriers that have held women back: The overfocus on army generals (though Israel’s first-ever female major general, Orna Barbivai, has just entered the ring with Yesh Atid) and the refusal of ultra-Orthodox parties to include women on their slates – a situation Chazan says should be a source of outrage. (Over three years after a petition was filed, the High Court of Justice has yet to rule on a challenge to the female-free state of Haredi parties.) And in Likud, the party that seems poised to receive the largest number of seats, “the numbers of women haven’t been great,” Chazan notes.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course. While there was much fanfare over the record number of women being sworn into Congress last week, 106 of the 127 women are Democrats. Yet despite the religious parties, in Israel women are fairly evenly divided between parties: Of the 32 female lawmakers In the outgoing Knesset, some 60 percent are in opposition parties and the other 40 percent in the coalition.
In Israel, says Scheindlin, “gender is not a predictor of attitudes. There may be minor differences that create a gender gap, but there is no reason to conclude that women will move the country one way or another” when it comes to the big question of war and peace.
However, when it comes to fighting for important female issues – such as economic and social equality, and safety for women threatened by domestic violence – having a gender balance in the halls of power makes a crucial difference.
“While we know that just by electing women you aren’t promised anything – and of course there can be men who can promote our agenda – we know that when there is a mass of women in power, it brings about change,” says Margaliot. “The time is more ripe than ever before for real progress. I don’t know if it’s ripe enough – but we won’t find out if we sit and wait for it. We have to work to make it happen ourselves.”
Here is a list of women who have already made waves and others who are poised to play key roles in their parties...
Ayelet Shaked (co-leader, Hayamin Hehadash)
Defying the naysayers who doubted she could thrive as a secular woman in a religious party (Habayit Hayehudi), Shaked has grown into a political force to be reckoned with on her own terms. The justice minister has just formed a new party with Naftali Bennett and her name is bandied about as a future prime minister, should she ever join a major party like Likud. Her popularity has become a source of trepidation on the Israeli left, where she has earned the nickname “the pretty face of fascism.”
Orli Levi-Abekasis (leader, Gesher)
When the lawmaker quit Yisrael Beiteinu after clashing with chairman Avigdor Lieberman, most political observers expected her to either hitch her wagon to a major party or leave politics altogether. But she became an independent, continuing her work championing the weakest links in Israeli society. Then she formed her own party, Gesher, and surpassed her old party in the polls – a kind of political revenge. Notably, hers is the only centrist party with a female face at the helm.
Tamar Zandberg (leader, Meretz)
The election will be a major test for the new leader of the left-wing party, with supporters hoping the young, energetic candidate can somehow pull Meretz back from the brink (it came close to falling below the electoral threshold in 2015). Zandberg stumbled initially when she was caught lying about using a right-wing spin doctor. More recently, though, she was handed an unexpected gift when Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay’s public humiliation of former Zionist Union partner Tzipi Livni alienated many women. Zandberg hopes left-leaning Labor feminists will now make the move to Meretz.
Tzipi Livni (leader, Hatnuah)
In 2009, she came as close as any woman has done to following Golda Meir into the Prime Minister’s Office, winning 29 Knesset seats as head of Kadima – before failing to put together a governing coalition and losing her chance. A decade full of political twists and turns later, Livni found herself the target of a political ambush live on TV as Gabbay severed their political alliance. It is highly unlikely she can survive flying solo in this election; observers are waiting to see whether one of the new parties decide to add her considerable experience to their roster.
Adina Bar-Shalom (founder, Achi Yisraeli)
The ultra-Orthodox, Israel Prize-winning educator – daughter of the venerated late Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – has been flirting with politics for years. Initially, she held out hope that Shas, the party her father helped found, would break with tradition and allow a woman onto its slate. But it was not to be. Now Bar-Shalom is leading the new Achi Yisraeli party, built around “celebrating diverse Jewish identities” and “healing the current political discourse by seeking consensus on social issues with the goal of moving forward.” The ticket includes men and women from a variety of religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Miri Regev (Likud)
As he heads into the election with the prospect of indictments hanging over his head, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs his vocal allies and cheerleaders more than ever – and the queen of the Likud base tops that list. The outgoing culture and sports minister makes no secret of her aspirations to climb higher. With her electoral advantages – including her 25-year career in the Israel Defense Forces, which she concluded in 2005 as IDF spokesperson – and unapologetically brash style, Regev is expected to do well in the party primary. This will position her for an even more senior portfolio in any future Likud-led government.
Shelly Yacimovich (outgoing opposition leader, Labor Party)
The former Labor Party leader lowered her profile during the reign of Isaac Herzog, but has become more prominent as an ally of current leader Gabbay. After Gabbay had his high-profile political divorce from Livni, he turned to Yacimovich, naming her opposition leader in Livni’s stead. Of all the women in Labor, she has been the only one to publicly support Gabbay’s surprise jettisoning of Livni, saying he did the right thing.
Stav Shaffir (Labor Party MK)
The youngest person to be elected to the Knesset at the age of 27, Shaffir first made her name in Israel’s massive social protests of 2011. She joined Labor the following year and has become an ever-present on Israeli TV. She has also built a strong following on social media, boasting 150,000 Twitter followers, and was the undisputed star of the Labor primary in 2015, finishing second. She has been publicly silent on Gabbay’s old-school leadership and treatment of Livni.
Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List MK)
Two big political departures have thrown a spotlight on the Arab lawmaker: First, the announcement of Haneen Zoabi, Israel’s best-known Arab MK, that she is exiting the political stage; and second, Dov Khenin, the leader of Touma-Sliman’s Arab-Jewish faction, saying he will not be running either. A veteran feminist activist who entered the Knesset in 2015, Touma-Sliman has drawn praise for her work heading the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality – she was the first Arab woman to head a permanent Knesset committee.
Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, Caroline Glick and Shirley Pinto (Hayemin Hehadash)
In its first week on the national political stage, the most notable quality about Bennett and Shaked’s new right-wing party is its female-dominant gender balance (with 80 percent of its candidates women).
Moalem-Refaeli, the only Habayit Hayehudi MK to depart with Shaked and Bennett, leaves her old party without a female face. She is respected for her feminist activism and high level of cooperation with left-wing and Arab MKs, who disagree with her strongly on wider security and diplomatic issues.
Glick and Pinto are political newcomers: Glick is a Chicago-born, sharp-tongued Jerusalem Post columnist; while Pinto is co-founder of the Israeli Center for Deaf Studies and the first-ever hearing-impaired Knesset candidate.
Michal Zernowitski (Labor Party)
The Labor Party hopeful breaks the mold of what a candidate for the party looks like – just as she defies what an ultra-Orthodox woman should be. Zernowitski, who was brought into the party by former party leader Amir Peretz, is a high-tech professional, feminist and labor activist. If she places high enough on Labor’s slate in its February 12 primary, she could become the first-ever Haredi MK in the party’s long history.