In November 1973, soon after the Yom Kippur War, Nora Ephron flew to Israel and wrote an article titled “Women in Israel: The Myth of Liberation” for New York, about the then-fairly-new feminist movement in Israel and the challenges it faced.
In one paragraph, Ephron writes about the prime minister at the time, Golda Meir:
There is, of course, a prevalent belief in Israel, as well as in the rest of the world, that this country is some sort of paradise for women. To begin with, there is Golda Meir, and her extraordinary achievements are constantly used as an argument against the need for liberation—as in ‘How can you say women are discriminated against when we have a woman Prime Minister?’ In fact, Golda is simply Golda, and she is frequently referred to, in a line that is regarded as a witticism, as ‘the only man in the Cabinet.’ What is more to the point is that she is not only the only woman in the Cabinet, but also the only woman who has ever served in the Cabinet. Mrs. Meir has never shown any active interest in women’s rights—she is a classic example of the successful woman who believes that because she managed to rise to the top, anyone can.
Since Golda resigned from the premiership, there have been other women in the Cabinet, and 43 years later, there are four, the most ever at one time, and one in the more exclusive Diplomatic-Security Cabinet. However, no other woman has risen to the top like Golda.
In a year in which the United Kingdom has its second female prime minister, Theresa May, and a woman, Hillary Clinton, is the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States, the question is: When will it be Israel’s turn again? Which of the prominent women in Israeli politics is the likely next contender for prime minister?
There seem to be two running theories as to why no woman has filled Golda’s shoes. The first is that no woman was in the right place at the right time. The second has more to do with the place of women in Israeli society, backing up Ephron’s idea that Golda became prime minister despite being a woman.
Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett on the Right and Zionist Union faction chairwoman Merav Michaeli on the Left—who was known for addressing feminist issues as a columnist and television commentator before running for the Knesset—both gave some variation of the political circumstance response. Both also mentioned former foreign and justice minister Tzipi Livni as an example.
In the 2009 election, a Livni-led Kadima won 29 seats—the most of any party in the 18th Knesset. However, she was unable to form a coalition, and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, a position he maintained in two subsequent elections. The common political wisdom either blames the Haredi parties for refusing to be in Livni’s coalition or Livni for not being able to entice them to join. Either way, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, the head of Lithuanian Haredim until his death at 102 in 2012, said at the time there was no problem being in a government led by a woman. Some Haredi political commentators chalk up their parties’ preference for Netanyahu to Livni’s willingness to “divide Jerusalem,” while others pointed to her positions on religion and state issues.
The following election, in 2013, further supports the theory that being a woman is not an obstacle to political leadership, in that three parties were led by women—Livni’s eponymous party, Labor by Shelly Yacimovich and Meretz by Zehava Gal-On—two of whom, Yacimovich and Gal-On, won a primary. None, however, won enough seats to gain the premiership.
MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), formerly a lecturer on communications and gender studies at Bar-Ilan University (disclosure: I took one of her classes in college), subscribed to the second theory. In Israel, she posited, not enough women participate in politics. The Knesset has 32 female members, a record number, making it over 25 percent women, which is above average in the world. (In the U.S., 104 women hold seats in Congress, making up 19.4 percent of all representatives and senators.) Still, she said, women are 51 percent of the population, meaning they’re underrepresented.
According to Lavie, an increasing number of women are participating in local politics, and that will radiate to the national level, creating more prime ministerial candidates. Still, Lavie expressed confidence that being a woman is “not a disadvantage, but it’s different,” she said. “People have to get used to it. The more role models we see around the world, like [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and May, the sooner it’ll stop being exceptional.
“We have a female Supreme Court President [Miriam Naor], Bank of Israel governor [Karnit Flug], head of Israel Prison Service [Ofra Klinger] and more women moving up in the IDF. We’ll see more women around the Security Cabinet table—it starts there—and more women will then stand as heads of parties,” she added.
Being a member of the Security Cabinet also burnishes a politician’s defense bona fides, long seen as a near-necessity to become prime minister, but Lavie was skeptical that Israelis still want ex-generals as prime ministers. “I understand why people want a security expert because I live in this country, but sometimes when you’re on the outside, you ask better questions, because you don’t know what’s being assumed,” she said, adding: “Today people know that what you need are good advisers.”
Dr. Chen Friedberg, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and lecturer at Ariel University, gave a similar response, saying that she thinks a military record became less important in politics in the last decade. “We live in a complex world. Not everyone is an expert in every area. Netanyahu wasn’t a general, either,” she stated. “This came up in the 2009 election. [Former prime minister and IDF chief of staff Ehud] Barak asked ‘Who would you want to answer the phone in the middle of the night? Tzipora [Livni]?’ giving an impression of a tough, manly general.” Barak’s Labor won 13 seats in that election, less than half of Livni-led Kadima’s 29.
Friedberg said she doesn’t fully agree with either theory of why Israel hasn’t had a female prime minister since Golda. “If you say it’s because of gender, you’d be saying our society’s relation to women has deteriorated, and I don’t think that’s true. At the times when there were elections, there wasn’t a woman of stature,” she explained. “At the same time, since the primaries system entered our lives [in the early 1990s], you needed a lot of money to run … and women on average earn less. I think it’s a combination, but I lean toward there not being the right woman at the right time. I think the public is ready.”
As for the sheer number of women in politics, Friedberg said she takes a “glass half-full” approach.
“I look at the progress we’ve made relative to the character of Israeli society, with two big population groups that are not known as great promoters of women—Arabs and Haredim.” (Only one of the four parties making up the Joint List, the Islamic Movement-affiliated United Arab List, does not allow women to run. There are two female Arab MKs, both in the Joint List, and female Israeli Arabs ran in both the Labor and Bayit Yehudi primaries. Haredi parties in the Knesset do not allow women to run, but a Haredi women’s party ran in the last election and did not come close to passing the electoral threshold.) “Despite those limitations, the Knesset is 25 percent women,” she said.
A left-wing party leader hasn’t formed a coalition in Israel since Barak in 1999. (When Kadima won the 2006 election, it was made up mostly of former Likud MKs and presented itself as Centrist.) Since then, the Right has been ascendant, has demographics on its side—religious and traditional Jewish Israelis tend to have more children and are more likely to vote for the Right—and is polling better than the Left, to the point that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has been careful not to label his party as left-wing and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has been emphasizing his most nationalist positions.
If the next prime minister is not right-wing, it’s most likely, according to the latest political polls, that Lapid, leader of centrist Yesh Atid, would take the slot. Yesh Atid’s constitution states that Lapid will remain party leader until 2020. Labor is holding a leadership primary next year, and Yacimovich is running again, but she would have to reverse the trend in the polls to maintain Zionist Union’s lead in the Knesset among non-right-wing parties. Yacimovich’s commitment to socialist positions on socioeconomic issues gained her many devotees, but also scared off the political center last time she ran.
In the more distant future, Michaeli and MK Stav Shaffir, who reached the Zionist Union’s top 10 via the Labor primary, and seem to understand the importance of not being one-issue politicians much better than Yacimovich does, could be contenders.
In any case, the way the most recent polls look, a right-wing coalition supported by Haredi parties is more likely than a left-wing one.
Netanyahu already secured his spot as Likud leader ahead of the next election; no one dared run against him in this year’s leadership primary, so the party’s court canceled it.
No female leader has ever been floated for the theoretical center-right party that did better than Likud in some polls; in fact, the only possible female member ever mentioned is MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, who quit the Yisrael Beytenu faction earlier this year.
Looking to the future on the Right, two freshman ministers are the most likely candidates: Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
In the Likud, “first lady” does not mean Sarah Netanyahu: The term is used to describe the woman who reaches the highest spot in the party primary. For years, Limor Livnat held the coveted title, but she’s since retired from politics, and Regev nabbed it easily, becoming the fifth MK on the Likud’s list in her third term as a lawmaker. She is determined to overturn what she calls a left-wing, Ashkenazi, elitist bias in the government’s budget for cultural institutions; Ashkenazi, left-wing artists have responded by booing her at almost any award ceremony or event she attends. She also has worked to take away state funding for any cultural events glorifying or humanizing terrorists—mostly Palestinian, but also former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer, Yigal Amir.
The former IDF spokeswoman and military censor shed the restraint required for those positions when she entered politics and is now known for, well, her big mouth. Some call her Miri “Applause” Regev, after an election debate in which she grabbed a nearby Israeli flag, waving it while walking across the stage and calling for kapayim (applause). Other outbursts of hers have been less innocent, such as when she called African migrants to Israel a “cancer,” though she later apologized for it, and in recent weeks, when she reportedly said that if the government is paying for public broadcasting, it should be able to control the news it airs.
Last, but not least, we have Shaked.
Shaked is in Bayit Yehudi, which is smaller and more right-wing than Likud. Unless the Likud somehow crashes and burns, it is unlikely that the religious-Zionist party will overtake the more center-right one. However, there is often talk of some kind of merger; Netanyahu himself reportedly seeks to form an “Israeli Republican Party,” as in, a broad right-wing bloc.
Still, Shaked is not even her party’s leader—that’s Bennett. In July, in a briefing with Knesset reporters, she said does not plan to run against Bennett to head Bayit Yehudi, and that she does not plan to leave the party.
Yet, Shaked used to be a member of the Likud’s central committee. A source close to Shaked said that her former committee colleagues constantly ask her to return to the party, and that she is very flattered by the requests.
Plus, these days, Shaked is polling better than Bennett. A secular MK in an Orthodox party, she’s managed to win over hardline rabbis and religious moderates, and is clearly still beloved in the Likud.
Shaked has also surprised many who wouldn’t be among her typical supporters as Justice Minister. She impressed many by opening the first new Sharia court in Israel in years and appointing dozens of new Sharia judges; she said in July she hopes to appoint a female Sharia judge. While her mission to curb judicial activism is anathema to most on the Left, she’s avoided becoming a target by showing respect for the judiciary and maintaining a good working relationship with Naor. As a member of the Security Cabinet, Shaked, who is only 40, is also getting those aforementioned security bona fides.
In Israeli politics, it’s never wise to make predictions. Things can change in an instant. Plus, it’s unclear whether there will be a female prime minister soon. But if I had to bet money on who Israel’s second female prime minister would be, out of the choices in the current Knesset, I would bet on Shaked.
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Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.