Haifa, Israel - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert managed to hang on to power by his nails last week, after persuading the Labor Party to drop a bill to dissolve parliament just hours before the scheduled vote.
The price Olmert paid was a promise to Labor leader Ehud Barak that the Kadima party will hold new leadership primaries no later than September 25.
Now that a timeframe has been set for a leadership contest, campaigning will begin in earnest, and all eyes are on front-runner Tzipi Livni, the popular foreign minister. Some of the most intense discussion focuses on the question of how the contest will be affected by the fact that Livni is a woman.
When Olmert’s corruption scandal broke last month and Livni entered the limelight as a possible replacement, one of the first questions raised by commentators was whether the Haredi parties, representatives of a fast-growing Orthodox community where gender attitudes are becoming increasingly conservative, would go into coalition under her.
Just three months earlier, an incident showed just how problematic the prominence of women in public life has become for the Haredi community. After a commission met to present its findings on the government’s conduct of the Second Lebanon War, photographs of the briefing in the Haredi Orthodox press were digitally altered to erase commission member Ruth Gavison, a Hebrew University professor. The move was made to comply with current rulings of the Haredi rabbinate, which prohibit the publication of images of women.
Should Livni make it to the top, many Haredi Israelis would still be able to trip over her in the street without recognizing her un-publishable face, but the sector’s main political parties have indicated that her gender will not hinder coalition negotiations.
Now, however, experts are casting doubt on whether Livni will get even that far. While she was the front-runner in early opinion polls, pundits are predicting that the run-up to the Kadima primaries will serve as a three-month reminder that Israeli politics is still very much a man’s game. This is because security credentials are the expected trump card in convincing Israelis of prime ministerial qualities.
“The fact that she is a woman, and as such was not a general in the army, is a real issue for her chances of winning the Kadima primaries,” said Rina Bar-Tal, president and chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network. Another commentator, Hebrew University political scientist Naomi Chazan, veteran Israeli feminist and former Knesset member, voiced a similar opinion. “People here say political ability,” she said, “but what they mean is military experience.”
Livni’s gender has been used against her in the past. A year ago, when she called for Olmert’s resignation but failed to tender her own, she was widely accused of feminine indecisiveness. “Tzipi Livni removed the last doubts as to her compatibility for the post of secretary general of [the women’s organization] Na’amat, or at most, president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization,” wrote Ben Caspit, one of the country’s leading political commentators, in the daily Ma’ariv.
Gender studies researchers believe that with attitudes like this rife in Israel, the only way Livni has gotten as far as she has in politics is by downplaying her femininity.
“Whenever approached to push for progress in women’s rights or rape law, she declined to get involved — even when she was minister of justice,” said Orit Kamir, Hebrew University professor of law and gender studies.
Livni’s gender neutrality “extends as far as it can for a woman, and she is smart enough to disguise her femininity,” Kamir said. This means appearing calm and passionless on political matters, avoiding makeup and jewelry, and dressing in dark, ultra-conventional trouser suits “that would not be out of place in London or New York, but which no other woman wears here.”
Yet there is one symptom of her gender that she cannot hide: her lack of experience in dealing with matters of security. Times have changed since Golda Meir overcame this problem; she was elected when Israelis were on a high, believing themselves incapable of facing defeat after the triumph of the Six Day War. Today they feel deeply threatened by Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. “Then people sensed Israel was strong enough not to need a military leader. The same feeling of strength is not present today,” Jerusalem Post analyst Calev Ben-David told the Forward.
Livni seems well aware of this. In early June, the Sunday Times of London boasted a scoop with her “former colleagues” playing up her role in the Mossad in the early 1980s, when she was in her 20s. The newspaper reported that she was a Paris agent when the Mossad ran a series of missions to kill Palestinian terrorists in European capitals. The word around the Knesset is that the story was put out by Livni’s people as a bid to address the hole in her curriculum vitae.
Unfortunately for her, whatever she got up to in Paris was small potatoes compared with the security accomplishments of her party rivals. They include Minister of Internal Security Avi Dichter, who is a former director of Shin Bet, and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief of staff.
What’s more, voters in the primaries — with reminders from Dichter and Mofaz — will be well aware that the party needs a candidate to fight Labor leader and former army chief of staff Ehud Barak, who is (jointly with one other man) the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history.
“Israel is very much a militaristic country, and by extension one where men are dominant in public life. The mentality is that we need army officers at the top to take care of us,” Bar-Tal said. “But this is not valid. She can have thousands of military aides next to her who can ensure all the military decisions made are the best.”
There have been Israeli leaders who have relied on this principle, including Meir. Olmert’s military career was troubled: He began his service in 1963, but was temporarily relieved of duty because of injuries he sustained before enlistment; he eventually finished his military service in 1971 as a reporter for the army magazine, and later completed an officer’s course, but he never has been regarded as a military authority.
This sense of following in Olmert’s footsteps is unlikely to work for Livni, and is indeed likely to work against her. “The Second Lebanon War spooked people,” Ben-David said. “There is a feeling that the problems there come from the fact that the people at the top lacked military background. After that, people feel the need for a military person at the top.”
Chazan notes that this feeling is gaining strength, with the threats of Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran increasingly on people’s minds. “The longer the campaign for the primaries goes on, the more the security factor will play against Livni,” she said.
According to Chazan, there is only one way that Livni can deal with the issue. “The assumption that it is only military men that can lead Israel has disproved itself, and Livni should break this tradition.
“She should realize that her source of strength is that she can propose that what Israel needs is actually a transition to a civilian worldview, which is exactly what she can offer.”