Women head three major parties in Israel’s elections

For the first time in Israel’s history, three of the major parties are headed by women. The Labor party headed by Shelly Yacimovich is expected to become Israel’s second-largest party, Hatnuah headed by former Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni is set to win seven seats, and the dovish Meretz and Zahava Gal-On is projected at five seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Because the front-runner, the joint slate of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu ((Israel is Our Home), is only expected to get about 35 seats, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be turning to all of these parties as potential coalition partners.

“It’s an amazing advancement,” Dr. Galit Desheh, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network told The Media Line. “Two of these women have an amazing record promoting women’s rights and issues.”

The two she was referring to are Yacimovich and Gal-On. Livni is not seen as focusing on women’s issues, although she has begun to do so more of late.

Yacimovich, 52, was a popular journalist before entering politics in 2005. She has reinvigorated the Labor party by focusing on social and economic issues, and gotten tens of thousands of young people to join. Of the first 22 candidates on Labor’s list, seven are women.

Gal-On, 56, of the dovish Meretz party, has been especially active on women’s rights issues. A Knesset member since 1999, she has led the committee that fights the trafficking of women. Desheh ays she is the single most active Knesset member on women’s issues.

In contrast,  Livni, 54, is not seen as a major advocate of women’s rights. She has started a new party called Hatnuah, the Movement, after she lost the leadership of Kadima, a centrist party, in recent primaries. Livni, a former intelligence official, has focused on foreign policy.

In addition to these women, Asma Agbarieh – Zahalka, 39, heads the Da’am Workers Party, a socialist party that focuses on employment issues in the Arab sector of Israel. It is doubtful that it will receive enough votes to enter the Parliament.

There are currently 24 women in the current Knesset and that number is expected to rise substantially. Even parties headed by men have placed women in prominent slots. Netanyahu’s Likud which is running on a joint slate with Yisrael Beytenu, has put seven women in the top 30 slots. Yesh Atid, a centrist secular party headed by popular journalist Yair Lapid, has three women in the top 10.

In the past, the quickest route to politics in Israel was the army. Generals were revered and most of Israel’s prime ministers (with the notable exception of the sole woman, Golda Meir) had illustrious military careers. Now that is changing.

“We are seeing that some generals are not even getting elected, and yet journalists are having great success,” Dr. Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “This opens the door for women because there are more women journalists.”

Women are active in Israel’s labor force. While only 28 percent of Arab women in Israel work outside the home, (due to cultural factors which encourage women to stay at home with their children), about 80 percent of Jewish women have paying jobs. Israel has good day care and laws that encourage women to work. That said, women still earn between 17 and 30 percent less than men.

The Israel Women’s Network's Desheh says the three priorities for women are personal security, improving conditions for female workers and women’s health. As more women serve in the Knesset, it is likely that women’s issues will come to the fore.

“Research shows that men and women in the Knesset have different legislative behavior,” Rahat said. “This is a new stage in Israeli politics.”