Uncourted and underrepresented, Israel’s female voters could decide election

For first time in 14 years, there won’t be a Knesset party led by a woman and little effort was made to address women’s issues – even though most of the undecided voters are women

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Left-wing activists protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to quit, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)
Left-wing activists protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to quit, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Israelis were voting again Monday, just six days before International Women’s Day on March 8, in a race that many women’s rights advocates consider a step backward for women’s representation.

For the first time in 14 years, not a single political party with any realistic chance of making it into the Knesset is led by a woman.

And for the first time since women’s representation began to climb in 1999 — from a stable 6-10 percent of Israel’s parliament in the country’s first five decades to the 20th Knesset’s 2018 apex of 29% — that climb has stopped and even reversed.

If the average of the final pre-election polls is proven correct, 26 women will enter the Knesset in Monday’s vote, or just under 22% of the parliament’s 120 seats. It would mark the first time since 1996 that the number of women in Israel’s parliament has gone down.

Worse, most of those women are not getting elected; they’re getting appointed. Blue and White, an alliance of top-down parties where the party leaders select their lists, features just six women in the top 20 slots. Likud, where the list is mostly selected in broad-based party primaries, has just three.

Former justice minister and Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The story is the same across the political spectrum.

Indeed, even in parties where women are well-represented, as in the leftist Labor-Gesher-Meretz, the Arab-majority Joint List and the rightist Yamina (needless to say, women are excluded in principle from the Haredi party slates), they come mostly at the bottom of each list, not at the top, and so are unlikely to win meaningful committee chairs or ministerial posts in the next functioning Knesset.

The trend is so consistent that it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that it is intentional, a tactical nod to women voters.

In Yamina, for example, Ayelet Shaked took third place, but one must reach seventh to find the next woman, Idit Silman. At that point, at the slots hovering on the cusp of entering the Knesset — Yamina is polling between 7 and 9 seats — it’s all women: Idit Silman, Sara Beck, Shirley Pinto, Orit Strook, and culminating in Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli at eleventh place.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman leads a Status of Women and Gender Equality Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 21, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the Joint List, too, Aida Touma-Sliman and Heba Yazbak hold the fifth and eighth slots respectively, with the next in line, Sundus Saleh and Iman Khatib, coming in at 15 and 16. Joint List has polled at 14 to 16 seats. (In fairness, the present list marks the highest-ever percentage of women in realistic slots for the Arab-majority parties.)

One finds the same clustering of women at the bottom in the large parties as well. Blue and White got 35 seats in April and 33 in September: numbers 36-40 on its list are all women. In Likud, which won 35 and 32, all but one in the 29-35 range are women. While the current caretaker government has an all-time-record four women as ministers, three of them are the ministers of culture and sport, Diaspora affairs and social equality, the most junior ministries available.

Meanwhile, the campaigns of the major parties — Likud and Blue and White — have all but neglected any explicit outreach to women or discussion of women’s issues.

And that despite the fact that women make up a majority of undecided voters, according to a year-long study of undecided voters by researchers at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

By women for women

Arguably, in an ideal world, the question of gender representation among lawmakers should matter less than it does. Writ large, the wellbeing of women is in the overwhelming long-term interest of men. And should the gender of parliamentarians affect the government’s capacity to deal seriously with issues that mostly affect just one gender?

Likud party supporters cheer during an election campaign tour of the Likud party at the Mahane Yehuda Market ahead of elections, on February 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In reality, however, at least in the Israeli political experience, it has nearly always been women lawmakers who have championed issues that disproportionately affect women.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Knesset set up a committee to deal with the phenomenon of “honor” murders of women by male family members, it was the efforts of Likud’s Limor Livnat and Labor’s Yael Dayan that first brought that subject onto the national agenda in a meaningful way.

This reality, that women are needed in parliament to bring meaningful change on issues that disproportionately affect women, hasn’t changed in the ensuing years.

The two leading Knessets for women’s representation, the 19th and 20th, elected in 2013 and 2015 with 27 and 29 initially-elected women lawmakers apiece, were also the first ones to advance long-delayed and sometimes ahead-of-its-time legislation and policies to help the most marginalized and disadvantaged women in Israeli society.

Blue and White MK Gadeer Mreeh at the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

They included one of the world’s first measures outlawing online revenge porn, as well as a measure setting goals for women’s representation in local councils, as Tal Schneider, political analyst for the Globes business journal, noted this week.

Perhaps the most dramatic measure advanced almost exclusively by women lawmakers was the December 2018 adoption by Israel of the “Nordic model” of state enforcement targeting prostitution, which views the client-prostitute relationship as one of exploitation rather than consent, and penalizes the client rather than the prostitute.

A 2016 Welfare Ministry report on prostitution in Israel found that over 70% of Israel’s roughly 12,000 prostitutes were driven to the work by financial desperation, and even more would leave the industry if they could, leading lawmakers like former Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich to compare Israel’s adoption of the Nordic model to the war on slavery in previous centuries.

“It was a revolutionary, creative law,” said Schneider, and one advanced consciously and conspicuously by and for women.

The law passed in December 2018 and is set to go into effect in May of this year. It was the product of an unusual alliance of women: left-wing feminist groups who initiated the bill and lobbied for it over several years, followed by women lawmakers from across the political spectrum, from Shelly Yachimovich on the left to Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Ayelet Shaked on the right to Aliza Lavie in the center, who took up the charge and ensured its passage.

MKs Tamar Zandberg (L), Shelly Yachimovich (C), and Miki Haimovich (R) at the Knesset, May 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

By the time it became law — in a 34-0 vote, with many of the votes cast by women lawmakers — the 20th Knesset had already dissolved and scheduled new elections in April 2019. But the lawmakers who had worked to forge the new legislation would not let it die with the Knesset’s dissolution, and at the persistent urging of Shaked, an informal cross-party coalition of women lawmakers set an unusual recess vote to ensure its passage.

The road ahead

Will the next Knesset, which will see women leaders sidelined by the left’s new Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, by the centrist coterie of ex-generals who lead Blue and White, and by the longstanding dearth of women leaders in Likud, continue on the 20th Knesset’s legislative path?

Monday’s race is exceedingly close. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly told his supporters, the right is only a few percentage points away from a narrow victory. That fact has driven an unusually intense focus on even the smallest constituencies.

Likud has devoted unprecedented energies to court the Ethiopian Jewish vote, wooing Blue and White lawmaker Gadi Yeverkan to the Likud list and expediting the arrival in Israel of Ethiopian immigrants a week before the election. Blue and White, too, has a campaign targeting Ethiopian voters — and another targeting Druze communities, seeking to peel some traditional Likud support from that minority toward the centrist list.

Israeli women, like Israeli men, generally prioritize questions of national security, the economy and ethnic and religious identity over explicitly gendered issues. Then again, many Ethiopian Jews and Druze Israelis also vote on issues either more universal or more personal than their parochial communal concerns.

In their desperate wrangling to emerge on top, Israel’s political leaders seem to have forgotten the largest pool of available votes, the ones who could decide their political fate by the time polls close on Monday night.

Most Popular
read more: