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Livni plays the gender card

Tzipi Livni, greeting a supporter at the Kadima primaries in Tel Aviv on Sept. 17, 2008, is increasingly targeting the women’s vote in her bid for prime minister. (Brian Hendler)

Tzipi Livni, greeting a supporter at the Kadima primaries in Tel Aviv on Sept. 17, 2008, is increasingly targeting the women’s vote in her bid for prime minister. (Brian Hendler)

ISRAEL VOTES 2009

TEL AVIV (JTA) — When Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister and a candidate for prime minister, spoke before a group of female lawyers this week, she received three standing ovations. Her male rivals in the race had to make do with polite applause.

"Whether we have a female prime minister is up to you and your vote," Livni told the 200 or so women, who promptly rose to their feet, clapping and cheering.

The Feb. 10 election marks the first time Livni is making a concerted effort to court the female vote. Throughout her relatively brief political career, she has downplayed her gender and largely sidestepped women’s issues.

But running second behind the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and with her male rivals attempting to undercut her credibility using language some describe as thinly veiled chauvinism, Livni has pulled out the gender card, possibly in realization of the potential strength of women voters.

Fellow Kadima Party members are speaking on her behalf at specially organized women’s parlor meetings. They’re telling audiences that Livni will advocate for the rights of working women and bring more women into decision-making positions in local and national government.

A "Women for Tzipi Livni" campaign rally is planned for Jerusalem and, on the last Friday in January, a group of women on bicycles is slated to tour Tel Aviv to spread the word that women’s votes belong with the lone viable female candidate in the race for prime minister.

If successful in her bid for prime minister, Livni would become Israel’s first female leader since Golda Meir. With Netanyahu widening his gap on Livni, the one group with whom she seems to be gaining some ground is among women voters. Along with young people, they represent the bulk of Israel’s undecided voters.

"I want a woman in charge — a woman has more of a sense of responsibility for her people," hairdresser Rachel Rubin, 54, said during a break at the salon where she works.

Overall voter turnout in Israel has been dropping throughout this decade, although Israel still has one of the highest rates of voter participation in the Western world. In the last general election, in 2006, voter turnout was 63 percent. This time, more women than men say they are not certain they will head to the polls on Feb. 10. 

"The big question mark is will Livni galvanize precisely those women less likely to vote who might see her as a new opportunity for a different kind of voice in our political leadership," said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and pollster.

With Meir the notable exception, the top echelon of Israeli politics long has been dominated by men. Specifically, the Israeli electorate has embraced men with military backgrounds, reinforcing the notion that overseeing the country’s security is the purview of men, not women.

To some extent, women, too, have absorbed that message; there is no strong tradition in Israel of women supporting female candidates. 

While the recent war in Gaza initially could have been a chance for Livni, as foreign minister, to burnish her security credentials, she largely was sidelined, at least in the public’s eye. The war was seen as the brainchild of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is running for prime minister as head of the Labor Party.

Speaking before Livni’s appearance Monday at the gathering sponsored by the Israeli Bar Association and the Israel Women’s Network, Barak touted the presence of a female officer inside Gaza during the fighting.

Livni in her address drew a standing ovation when she responded, "It’s very nice that there was a female company commander in Operation Cast Lead, but it’s important to remember that among the three people making security decisions was also a woman. I will not let us be pushed aside from making security decisions."

Some Israeli feminists see Livni’s attempt to make an issue of her gender as a cynical move, considering her lack of support of legislation dealing with women’s issues. Last year, critics note, Livni voted against providing tax deductions to working mothers who pay for child care — although now Livni is telling female audiences that her vote was part of coalition politics and as prime minister she would consider such benefits.

"Those of us who are active in women’s issues should know she does not deserve our vote," said Orit Kamir, a Hebrew University law professor who specializes in gender. "You can’t always be anti-women’s issues until you want our vote."

Rina Bar-Tal, chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, sees things differently. She thinks Livni, despite her late embrace of women’s issues, is gaining momentum among female voters. It’s apparent at campaign events where young women rush to Livni, thanking her for running, Bar-Tal said.

In general, Israeli women, like men, evince gender stereotypes when they consider whether Livni is up for the top job, Bar-Tal said.

"It’s a cultural thing here — something we will have to get over," she told JTA. "If she makes it and becomes prime minister, it will be much, much easier next time."

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