Post-Election Gender Roadmap for the Israeli Knesset

Road Map

The results of the elections to the 19th Knesset surprised Israel. The first surprise came immediately following the end of the voting process, manifested in the landslide success of a man who just a year ago had sat in the moderator’s chair of a popular weekly television news program, and before that, as the host of an entertainment program on that same television channel, and was a columnist in the country’s most widely distributed newspaper – Yair Lapid. Lapid, who is not a politician, has always signified the veteran Ashkenazi Jewish-Israeli mainstream, the classic middle class man from the top socio-economic decile in the local-Israeli context. The fact that Yair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, raked in nineteen seats in the Knesset, further fragmented the paradigm between right and left, and for the first time in many years, presented the Israeli public with a real potential for change. Will this potential bear fruit? Time will tell.

But after analysis of the election results, and once the reasons for celebration and disappointment came into focus, another surprise could be discerned – a surprise that brings with it yet another significant potential, regarding which lively discussion has already ensured.
Twenty-seven women will be serving in the 19th Knesset. Almost one forth of the Israeli members of parliament will be women. This is the Knesset with the largest number of women parliamentarians since the establishment of the state. Let it not be forgotten: only eleven women served in the first Knesset. True, it is still only one forth, and the remaining ninety three members of the Israeli Knesset will be men. Israel still ranks very low in terms of the representation of women; but, it is in fact an achievement that Israel’s women happily welcome.

Israeli law does not provide electoral quotas for women in political parties. Each party forms its own regulations, adapted to its particular worldview. In most parties on the Israeli political scene, the regulations do not require equal representation of men and women.
In addition, and in contrast to other western-democratic nations in the world, in Israel there are parties under whose aegis women, by definition, cannot be elected to the Knesset. These parties – that exclude women entirely – are the two ultra-Orthodox parties: the Ashkenazi party United Torah Judaism, (which increased its strength this time, and received seven Knesset seats), and the Mizrahi party, Shas (which maintained its numbers, receiving eleven seats). It is not only that these two parties fail to integrate women into their party lists; it is not merely that they lack the option of being part of the party and its political mechanism. Graver yet, these parties are promoting a slow and dangerous process of excluding women from the public sphere. Encouraged by rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox world, a phenomenon of gender-segregated buses has been proliferating, in which separation is mandated between women, who are relegated to the back of the bus, and men who sit in the front. In addition, religious extremist elements are promoting a practice of erasing women’s images from public advertisements in Jerusalem, prohibiting interviews with women on religious radio stations, and prohibiting women from singing in public spaces (for example, female soldiers are no longer permitted to sing at the Western Wall swearing-in ceremonies). This is a very dangerous process that further widens the existing rift between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular in Israel, and is deleterious mainly to women across the entire political continuum, from secular to ultra-Orthodox alike.
In these parties, there are no democratic decision-making processes, and it is the rabbis who set the tone and the path. There are no mechanisms for transparency, primaries, etc. Their significant and declared social outlook is that a woman’s place is in the home, caring for children, earning an income, and surely not in politics and in the public space.That’s the extreme end.
None of the other parties in the Knesset prevent women from running in the elections and taking part in the political process, and yet, very few women are ultimately elected, and even fewer women are to be found in decision-making positions.

The last Knesset, and to an even greater extent the last government, was noteworthy for the paltry number of women. Only two women served as ministers, and there was no representation of women at all in decision-making forums: the Political- Security Cabinet, and the eight-member “Forum ha-Shminiyah,” which advises the government on security and policy issues – both were not only purely male, but almost purely former generals.  Moreover, in the last government, which was the largest in Israeli history, there were seven ministers whose mandate was security (including four ministers-without-portfolio that dealt with various aspects of state security), a topic in that itself excludes women from the discourse.

But these past elections presented us with a change in the atmosphere – a significant change. Three important parties are headed by women: Shelly Yachimovich in the Labor Party, Tsipi Livni in HaTnua, and Zehava Galon, leading Meretz. This fact sets the stage for a lively, deep and instructive discussion regarding the place of women in politics, women’s votes, and topics important to women. It enables women to appear in the public arena in a position of strength and not one of victimization and weakness.
During the elections, the electoral power of women in Israel came up for discussion. Public opinion surveys examined women’s voting patterns and revealed the fact that women are more rational voters, basing their decisions on party platforms, and also the fact that women tend more to deliberate – more women than men were wavering in the last elections regarding their voting choices.
In recent weeks, many women’s organizations invited politicians to speak before hundreds of women in order to hear their feminist platform, thereby forcing them to relate to women as an electoral force that was waiting to hear unique messages, and this atmosphere, which began in the elections, was only a taste of what was to come in the election results themselves, and the fact that the number of women Knesset members grew to twenty-seven.

But not all of the parties had the sense to place a significant number of women on their lists, or any women, for that matter. In addition to the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, two of the Arab parties: R’am-T’al and Hadash have no women among their Knesset members.In the ranks of the Likud, only four female Knesset members will serve, all of whom were also in the previous Knesset. Yisrael Beitenu added three additional women to the joint list. Labor receives a high score for having a woman heading the party, but apart from her, there will only be three other women MKs, too few considering the total of fifteen of its members elected to the Knesset.
Among the Knesset members from HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home”) party will be three women. And one of the three Knesset members from the Arab party Balad is a woman.
HaTnua, headed by Tsipi Livni, did not bother to place a single woman aside from the leader of the party, thereby shooting themselves in the foot as far as gender is concerned.
The two parties that excelled in the representation of women are beyond any doubt the new party Yesh Atid, and the veteran Meretz. Half of the Knesset members from Meretz, which doubled its numbers in the present elections, are women, while in Yesh Atid, there are eight women among nineteen Knesset members.

So, what can be expected from 27 women?
If we look at the glass half empty, we can easily say, “not much.” There are too few women, and therefore, the possibility of their having an impact is limited and negligible, mainly in light of the fact that they are associated with wildly varying parties and worldviews. There are too few women, and therefore, the chances of their landing a place at the decision-making tables is limited, and the ability to bring this to fruition depends, quite unfortunately, on men.

But the full half of the glass tells another story, because a significant portion of the twenty-seven women in the Knesset are declared or actual feminists. Some of them are women with rich public experience in advancing topics of gender equality. Some of them have already worked together in past joint struggles. Herein lays the tremendous potential in those well versed in both theory and practice to join forces to advance gender equality. If they are wise enough to collaborate, if they have the sense to pursue strategically planned joint maneuvers together, they will be able to fulfill this potential to span the political and ideological gaps in uncommon alliances, and spearhead successful achievements. Such an approach will help them receive sweeping support and be nourished by the broad range of activity of the women’s civil society organizations. In recent years, women’s organizations in Israel have been operating strategically, collaborating as a single united field. This solidarity breeds successes, which in turn not only strengthens the field of the women’s movement, but also arouses vibrant discussions, and yields success in placing topics relating to gender equality at the top of the public, media and political agendas. This is not to be taken for granted.

The most successful model for this type of collaboration was in the 13th Knesset, which was inaugurated in 1992. At that time there was a moment of opportunity, when the women Knesset representatives of various parties together pushed through important gender equality legislation, creating something from nothing, due to gender-thinking that crossed party lines. In that same Knesset, the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women was established, and its first chairperson was MK Yael Dayan. Dayan, serving in the Knesset as a member of Labor, together with Naomi Chazan from Meretz, Limor Livnat and Naomi Blumenthal from the Likud, and Tamar Gozanski of Hadash, succeeded in overcoming political differences and together achieved the passage of a series of laws that significantly advanced gender equality.

This is precisely the potential embodied in the new Knesset.
The women from the Labor party: Merav Michaeli – a staunch feminist, Shelly Yachimovich, who never declared herself as a feminist but all of whose actions attest to a worldview informed by gender equality, as are the laws she advanced that were often beneficial to underprivileged women, and Stav Shafir, a young woman from the leadership of the social protest movement, who has a progressive worldview and is also a feminist.
The women of Yesh Atid, including: Dr. Aliza Lavie, a religious-Orthodox women who led difficult feminist struggles against rabbis in her community of origin, Yael German, until recently one of the only woman mayors in Israel, Dr. Ruth Calderon, who founded and directs a college for the study of Jewish culture, and Atty. Pnina Tamano-Shata, an activist on behalf of women from the Ethiopian community.
The women from Meretz: Zehava Galon, who has already proven herself and was chosen by a special committee of women’s organizations as the female Knesset member who most advanced gender equality in the last Knesset, Michal Rozin, who prior to being elected to the Knesset was the director of   the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel,  and Tamar Zandberg, an energetic young woman who is very active for women’s rights in all realms, and until recently was a member of the Tel Aviv City Council and responsible for the advancement of women in the city.
Of course one must not forget the women of Likud-Yisrael Beitenu. Limor Livnat, as stated, was a partner in the advancement of women in 1992, and has for years been identified with struggles on behalf of women and is a mouthpiece for them on various forums. Sadly, Gila Gamliel, who was a deputy minister in the last government, responsible for the affairs of women and youth, did not push through any legislation for the advancement of women, nor did she infuse any content and activism into the Authority for the Advancement of Women’s Status, which she headed. This is unfortunate, since this authority could have been an excellent mechanism for the advancement of women. The activity of Tzipi Hotovely, who headed the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, was also sometimes a subject of controversy, mainly when she tried to advance a bill to prohibit intermarriage. In contrast, Orly Levy-Abekasis did an excellent job in her work on matters that advance mainly women, even if she did not manifestly declare that this was what she was doing; she appears to be a potential partner for cross-party initiatives for the advancement of women.
Women from HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home): Ayelet Shaked appears to be an assertive and determined fighter. She could join such a move, if she succeeds in overcoming her extreme rightist ideology and begins believing that there are other agendas that can be advanced. As far as Orit Strok is concerned, everyone likes to point out that she has eleven children. This is certainly a consciousness-raising reality. She will need to prove that there are other agendas besides a greater Israel and complete Jewish control over Hebron. Shuli Mualem, the third woman in HaBayit HaYehudi, who became famous due to tragic circumstances when she became a public widow following her husband’s death in the IDF helicopter disaster in 1997, ultimately became associated with women’s causes as director of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization. Perhaps this is not the most progressive feminism on paper, but time will tell.

Therefore, when analyzing the gender aspect of the Knesset election results, it is possible to identify the tremendous potential embodied in the entrance of so many feminist women into Israel’s legislative body. Our vision will be realized if they succeed in overcoming partisan differences, if they chose to wave the flag together, and if they act wisely and steer clear of the cramped quarters where people remain entrenched in paradigms of right and left, the “greater Israel” or the two-state solution, or capitalism versus socialism. We will all benefit if they have the wherewithal to succeed in creating a strategy for gender equality and in working together.

Many gender challenges face the women members of the 19th Knesset and their male colleagues, but it should be recalled that the Israeli legal books have tools that enable progressive gender equality, even relative to the most egalitarian countries in the world. For example, Israel was the first country in the world to turn UN Security Council Resolution 1325 into a national law, and even expanded it to apply beyond the requirements pertaining to women in areas of conflict. Israeli law, since 2005, has required the government to integrate “women from a variety of population groups” in every forum that it establishes on any national topic.
Most unfortunately, the government itself does not enforce the law, leaving it to civil society organizations to take upon themselves the mandate of overseeing its enforcement and submitting petitions to the HCJ when it is not implemented. Such a law makes possible a very progressive mechanism of integrating women into national decision-making processes, and imposition of a required range of the variety of population groups (national and ethnic) from which the women will be integrated.
Still on the Israeli legal books is the requirement that every new law presented in the Knesset be reviewed from a gender perspective. This requirement, as well, is not enforced, and it appears that Knesset members in general, and specifically, decision makers, do not quite know what to do with it, nor do they understand the significance of adopting gender awareness. Israel has not yet internalized what the world has long known: every issue has a gender aspect. Every government decision has a gender angle and a gender implication that must take expression in every new law and in every policy from planning and budgeting, to infrastructure, and all resource allocation.
This is a mechanism that can be well leveraged, and used wisely, it can lead to the advancement of gender equality.
Israel, of course, like many Western nations in the world, suffers from a lack of equality in the labor market: wage gaps between men and women (up to 25%), a minority of women in senior management positions – both in the private and public sectors; but in Israel, there is a unique dimension that  arises from the fact that the percentage of Arab women that participate in the labor market is very low (only approximately one fourth), stemming mainly from the lack of public transportation, and from a lack of pre-school educational frameworks in the Arab sector.
In addition, the new Knesset will have to bring an end to the dangerous trend of the marginalization of women from the public sphere – for this, no budget allocations are even necessary.

Despite the fragmentation of the Israeli political scene into a record number of parties, the potential for broad coalition building around issues of gender equality in Israel following the election of twenty-seven women MKs to the Knesset, is monumental. At a time when extremist forces threaten to erode the progress in women’s status already achieved, let all politicians in Israel, men and women, who understand that gender equality is an essential basis of a sound democracy, seize this opportunity. A perfect balance is 50/50; perhaps in Israel we can see in the near future a perfect Knesset: 60/60.



Anat Saragusti is a journalist and the Executive Director of Agenda, the Israeli Center for Strategic Communication. Saragusti is active in human rights, social change and mainly women’s rights organizations as a board member and as a consultant. Click to read another contribution by Anat Saragusti.