Behind the Headlines: Israeli Women Concerned About Drop in Knesset Seats

Although several interest groups, from immigrants to settlers, gained considerable ground in Israel’s recent national elections, one large and potentially powerful group — the country’s women — experienced a setback.

Instead of improving on the 12 seats they held in the previous Knesset, women filled only nine parliamentary slots after the May 29 election, which brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

As a result, say women’s groups and Knesset members, it will almost certainly be more difficult to pass women’s rights legislation.

“Let’s face it. The public agenda is set by those in power, and we do not have appropriate representation in the government,” says Leslie Sachs, director of the Israel Women’s Network.

“With fewer women in the Knesset, it will be that much harder to promote women’s issues.”

Knesset member Naomi Chazan of the secularist Meretz Party concurs, saying, “Our numbers just dropped 25 percent, and it has to have an impact.”

“The problem is exacerbated by the fact that of the nine women MKs, only three are in the coalition, with the rest in the opposition,” she says. “Before, that number was reversed. We have less power than we used to.”

Likud Knesset member Naomi Blumenthal disagrees.

“I can’t deny that having only nine women in the Knesset could hurt our efforts, but I’m not worried about the influence of the religious parties or the fact that this is a Likud government,” she says.

By all accounts, the dozen women who served in the previous Knesset accomplished a great deal, though they had accounted for just one-tenth of the Knesset’s 120 members.

“It will be hard to match their accomplishments during this term,” Sachs says. “One of their greatest achievements was creating the Committee on the Status of Women, a cross-party committee that finally put women’s issues on the national agenda.”

Sachs credits the female parliamentarians for “putting aside their political differences, and there were many, to pursue common goals.”

According to Sachs, they brought to public attention the problems of older women, of gay women and of “agunot,” women unable to get a divorce from their husbands. They also got the public to think about domestic violence and discrimination against women in the army.

“They amended the law against domestic violence, as well as the Equal Pay for Equal or Comparable Work Law, and Israeli women are already reaping the benefits,” says Sachs.

At least some female Knesset members fear that under the new government, women’s issues will no longer get a fair hearing.

While all agree that their decreased numbers will limit their power, those in the opposition also anticipate resistance from the Knesset’s religious parties, which increased their representation to 23 seats from 16 in the previous Knesset.

“Mr. Netanyahu depends on the religious and flatters them,” says Labor Knesset member Dalia Itzik. “These elements believe a woman’s place is in the home.

“There isn’t a single woman MK from the religious parties, and I think that says something. Limor Livnat [of Likud] is the only woman government minister, and I think that says something, too.

“I’m afraid the positive steps that we were able to take in the past will be nullified.”

Chazan of Meretz agrees.

“The real difference in this new Knesset is the very high proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox MKs,” she says. “I think it will be very difficult to pass legislation, especially on the personal-status issues of marriage and divorce — which are the purview of the religious establishment — without a certain degree of flexibility” on the part of Knesset members.

Yael Dayan, a longtime Labor Knesset member, fears that “it’s not only women’s issues that could be adversely affected. I’m concerned that under a right-wing government, all human rights issues will cease to be a priority. Women’s rights are human rights.”

But the Likud’s Blumenthal does not share the fears of her Knesset colleagues.

“Since the founding of the state, there has always been a certain status quo in society,” Blumenthal says. “If you look back at the rulings and legislative attitude toward women’s issues, you don’t see much variation with regards to the religious parties. And I do believe that equality can be achieved under the present government.”

Although reluctant to dole out blame for the poor showing among women Knesset candidates, women’s groups as well as Knesset members point a finger at Israel’s electoral system.

Marsha Roth, co-founder of the fund-raising organization Women for Women in Politics, says, “Traditionally, there has always been a problem of women’s representation in the government because many candidates were — and still are — culled from military ranks, where women rarely achieve prominence.

“Men have been groomed as candidates by other men, and women have had a hard time breaking into the old boys’ network.”

Under the old system, Roth says, “party leaders would caucus and decide who would get which slot. Now, under the new primary system, party members vote for 10, 15 or 20 slots, and ranking is based on who gets the most votes.”

In some parties, slots are put aside for certain candidates, usually women, immigrants or Arabs, “but it’s not an exact science,” she says.

“The Likud didn’t save enough seats for women on its list, and Labor, which promised to keep four seats open, shuffled everything around at the last minute.

“Meretz kept its promises, but the party didn’t win enough seats to make the difference. The religious parties, which gained seats, have no women MKs at all,” Roth says.

For women to gain a stronger political foothold the next time around, the female parliamentarians say more must be done to convince both the public and their own political colleagues that women and women’s issues deserve attention and representation.

“We must convince women that when it comes time for them to cast 15 ballots in the primaries, it is worth their while to vote for five or six women candidates,” says Dayan.

“It’s a question of education, of showing women that without women in power, issues like the longer school day, the minimum wage — 70 percent of minimum wage earners are women — and domestic violence won’t get government attention and resources.”

When it comes time to vote, Dayan adds, “women must exert political pressure on their parties. They have to say, `If you don’t support our issues, we won’t vote for you.’”

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