Shelly Yachimovich's Election Marks New Era in Israeli Politics

Women Now Lead Two Major Political Parties for First Time

By Elana Sztokman

Published September 29, 2011, issue of October 07, 2011.
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With the election of Shelly Yachimovich to head Israel’s Labor Party, two major political parties are led by women for the first time in the country’s history. This is an encouraging development not only because it helps advance gender fairness in Israeli society, but also because it potentially signals a new era for Israeli politics, one that has implications for issues as wide-ranging as the military, the peace process, the role of the Haredim and the movement for social justice.

Israel, like most countries, is still struggling to create a more equitable society, in which women have the same access to power as men. In the political realm, there have been some improvements over the past decade, but not enough. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Israel currently ranks 57th in the world in female parliamentary representation, with 23 out of 120 (19.2%) female Knesset members. This percentage has fluctuated over the past few Knessets, but has never broken 20%. According to Yifat Zamir, executive director of the organization We Power, which promotes women in Israeli politics, there are only six women mayors in Israel out of 154 cities and towns; that’s a paltry 3.8%. Out of some 3,000 members of municipal councils, only 300 are women. So a Knesset with two female party heads is a major step forward.

The absence of women at levels of decision making is perhaps most apparent in peace negotiations. Israel has yet to fully implement a 2001 United Nations Security Council resolution that called on countries to give women a bigger role “at decision-making levels” in peace processes. It also demanded that greater attention be paid to women’s lives and perspectives during negotiations. Two female Knesset members tried to institute part of the resolution, amending the Women’s Equality Law to prescribe representation for women in any “committee or other body established for shaping national policy on any subject including matters of foreign affairs and security.” But, as Knesset member Einat Wilf pointed out earlier this year, there are still zero women involved at decision-making levels in peace negotiations.

This is particularly striking in light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent appearance at the U.N., in which he dismissed the Palestinian bid for statehood with an attitude that I can describe only as excessive machismo. Contrasted with the reasoned, pragmatic voice of opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who seemed to have a greater appreciation and understanding about what steps needed to be taken to avoid a major confrontation, and it becomes easy to see that the peace process desperately needs women.

To be clear, I don’t believe that it’s the gender per se of Livni or Yachimovich that will enable either woman to herald a new era in Israeli political leadership. It’s not the fact that they’re women so much as that they’re former outsiders. They represent a new cadre of leaders, those who are by definition not part of the “old boys’ club” that has characteristically run Israeli government for decades. It’s not their biology or “nature” that is significant here, but rather their experience and perspective as women in society. Advancing women is not only about fairness and equality, but also about paying attention to the missing perspectives of 50% of the population.

Yachimovich in particular, someone who was a journalist for many years before entering politics in 2005, is a voice from outside the political and military establishment and has a deep-seated commitment to social issues. She can potentially create a shift of values and expectations about the way politics are conducted and about the agendas that are advanced. The fact that she was able to beat out entrenched politicos for the Labor party leadership indicates that perhaps the party itself is ready to let go of unhelpful political entanglements and reclaim a core vision of social justice and equality upon which it was originally founded. Maybe.

Livni has an even more vital mission in potentially ousting the right-wing parties, especially the Haredi ones, from a possible future government. She impressively demonstrated her resolve in refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition while it contained parties that she found to be too politically or religiously extreme. Of all the current major party leaders, Livni has the strongest commitment, I believe, to creating a parliament that is dedicated to preserving a civil society, free of religious pressure. Even Yachimovich has hinted that she would join a coalition that has religious parties, something that Livni seems less likely to do.

A Livni-led government without religious partners would really signal a new era in Israeli politics. It would also be a welcome change for women, who have the most to lose from Israel’s increasing religious fundamentalism. After all, religious parties have put pressure to keep women in the back of buses, out of certain army units, off the public stage, off party lists, in separate workplaces and, of course, bodily covered to the hilt. This is one of the greatest impediments to women’s well-being and human rights in Israel today. Moreover, this threat to women’s human rights represents a significant danger to the future of democracy and civil society in Israel in general.

A female-led, gender-conscious Knesset leadership has the potential to realign allegiances and establish a new tone, agenda and set of rules for politics, which could lead to a very different kind of Israeli reality.

Elana Maryles Sztokman is a contributing writer at the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, and author of the forthcoming book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” which will be published this fall.

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