On International Women's Day, a Look at Female Representation in Israel's Parliament

A report published by the Knesset’s research center shows the rise and fall of women's presence in Israeli politics, placing the country 83rd globally

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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The inauguration of the 22nd Knesset, October 3, 2019.
The inauguration of the 22nd Knesset, October 3, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Both the number of female Knesset members and the number of women placed high on their party’s ticket in Israel's election last week fell compared to the 2015 election, even though the number of female candidates has risen significantly over the past two decades, according to a report published by the Knesset Research and Information Center for International Women's Day.

The report also said that Israel ranks 83rd out of the 189 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union with regard to women’s representation in the legislature, and 27th out of the 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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The report tracked data from the 16th Knesset, elected in 2003, through the 23rd Knesset, elected last week.

Over the past year’s three elections, the proportion of women placed high enough on their party slates to have a realistic chance of entering the Knesset fell from 26 percent last April to 25 percent in September to 24 percent last week, the report showed.

It also found a slight decline in the proportion of women in the top half of the parties’ Knesset delegations, which is the half from which ministers and committee chairs are usually selected. Women comprised 22 percent of this top half after the 2013 election and 23 percent after the 2015 election, but only 21 percent after the latest March election.

The current Knesset is also the first since the 18th, elected in 2009, in which no party is led by a woman.

Women comprised 50 percent of the top half of Labor-Gesher-Meretz and 33 percent of Yamina’s top half. They were followed by Kahol Lavan (29 percent), the Arab-majority Joint List (22 percent) and Likud (just 17 percent).

However, neither Likud nor Kahol Lavan had any women in their top five slots. In contrast, women constituted 20 percent of the top five in Yamina, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List.

The proportion of women running for Knesset doubled between the 16th and the 23rd Knessets, going from 15 to 30 percent of all candidates for parties that actually passed the threshold. But the proportion of women placed high enough on the ticket to have a realistic chance of getting in rose less dramatically, from 14 to 24 percent of all such candidates.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties don’t run any female candidates.

In the other parties that entered the Knesset last week, women accounted for 26 to 44 percent of the candidates. They also comprised 13 to 38 percent of the candidates with realistic chances of getting a seat, and 14 to 43 percent of the actual MKs.

Four parties (Shas, United Torah Judaism, Likud and Kahol Lavan) had no women in their top five, while three had just one. Only one party, Labor-Gesher-Meretz, had two women in its top five.

The current Knesset has 30 female MKs, exactly 25 percent of the total Knesset. That is down from the peak of 37 women, or more than 30 percent of the Knesset, reached in the 20th Knesset (2015-19), but similar to the total following the previous two elections of the past year.

The report noted that the last election actually produced the highest number of women ever elected to the Knesset, but this is actually a decline compared to the number of women who actually served. In some of the previous Knessets, the number of women increased partway through a term because male MKs would resign, and that is how the 20th Knesset reached its peak of 37 women.

The percentage of women serving as mayors or city councilwomen is lower than the percentage of female MKs, but it is also rising, according to data published Sunday by the We Power organization. It said the percentage of women in city councils rose from 14 percent in 2017 to 17.6 percent in 2020, while the proportion of women mayors rose from 2 to 5.4 percent.

The town with the highest proportion of women on the city council, 57 percent, is Metula, while the regional council with the highest proportion of women is Tamar, at 60 percent. Among major cities, Bat Yam leads the pack with 44 percent, followed by Hod Hasharon at 41 percent. The figures in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are 32 and 19 percent, respectively.

The Knesset report noted that only one woman has ever been Knesset speaker – Dalia Itzik in the 17th Knesset (2006-09). The proportion of permanent committees chaired by women has ranged from zero to 26 percent over the years, but three committees have never been headed by a female – the Finance Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

In contrast, women have accounted for almost a third of all chairs of the Education, Culture and Sports Committee and 40 percent of all chairs of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. And the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality has always been chaired by a woman; with one exception (Gideon Sa’ar headed it for part of the 17th Knesset).

Other countries have found that setting quotas for female parliamentarians is one of the most effective ways to increase their number. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 130 countries had such quotas last year. Dozens of countries have laws setting quotas for all parties; in other countries, quotas aren’t mandatory, but certain parties have adopted them voluntarily.

Israel has no mandatory quotas, but some parties have adopted their own.

Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, urged the parties to appoint more women in all positions. “History proves that we need strong female MKs to promote women’s rights and gender equality,” she said.

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