In Israel’s Endless Elections, Female Candidates Have Been the Biggest Losers

Party mergers and other systemic problems have buried the country’s once-vaunted female political leadership.

A woman walks past electoral billboards bearing a portrait of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept. 4, 2019.
A woman walks past electoral billboards bearing a portrait of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept. 4, 2019. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

In mid-January, Israel’s political parties finalized their lists for what will hopefully be the last general election for a while. A referendum on the future of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, dogged by corruption charges, and on the prospect of West Bank annexation, this election—the third in the last year—could be among Israel’s most consequential. As both the right and left scrambled to preempt yet another postelection stalemate over government formation, their parties entered into groundbreaking mergers that could alter the face of the country’s politics. The most striking casualty in all these shifts has been women.

The downward trend began in the first iteration of these elections in April 2019, when the number of women elected to the Knesset dropped from 35 to 29 seats. In the September election, the number slipped to 28. The decline has transcended party lines. On the upcoming election slates, only two women are represented among the top 10 seats of each of the three largest parties—Likud, Blue and White, and the Joint List. The numbers do start to improve further down the lists. Meanwhile, the right-wing political alliance Yamina has five women in its top 10 seats, and the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz party has four. The ultra-Orthodox parties, per usual, have none. These changes mean that even fewer women could enter the 23rd Knesset than the last.

Israeli women have also lost leadership roles, which in turn means that fewer women are positioned to assume powerful cabinet positions or coveted committee assignments. In the 2020 elections, no women will lead any major parties. Political stars like Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich, and Stav Shaffir have, for now, been cast out of politics. Their remaining female colleagues have been downgraded. Orly Levy-Abekasis, Ayelet Shaked, and Tamar Zandberg—all former party leaders—now occupy the second, third, and fourth seats in their new parties, respectively. And while there are women at the helm of several smaller parties, ranging from the new women’s activist party Kol Hanashim (Voices of Women) to the disturbing Mishpat Tzedek party led by the wife of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, none is expected to garner enough votes to assume seats in the Knesset.

For a country often romanticized as a pioneer in female leadership, the new reality is especially disappointing. Women have served as Israel’s prime minister, speaker of the Knesset, governor of the Bank of Israel, and chief justice of the Supreme Court—three times over. Between 1988 and 2017, the number of women in Knesset increased fivefold. And many of the factors that have elsewhere undermined women in the workplace, and by extension their ability to ascend to leadership roles, are conspicuously absent in Israel. Families have access to high-quality universal health care, relatively low child care costs, 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, and, since 2013, universal access to pre-primary education beginning for children age 3.

Why then, at a time when women’s leadership around the world is on the rise, is Israel bracing for a backslide? The party mergers have played the most immediate role in marginalizing women. Across the political spectrum, larger parties, all led by men, absorbed smaller parties and pushed the heads of those parties into the second and third slots on the roster. As the mergers were finalized, other high-ranking party members, including women, found themselves pushed to seats further down the ticket to accommodate senior members from partner parties.

But far more systemic issues persist. The Haredi parties, which are among the largest in the government, continue to block women’s participation outright; the Supreme Court has only just begun to intervene. Further, many party lists are selected by male party leadership, rather than direct primaries, where women at least have an opportunity to compete. Yet even when primaries do take place, women often lose to men who hail from existing leadership positions in the army or elsewhere—arenas where women’s leadership has also been lacking and which serve as good platforms for fundraising. The country’s hyperfocus on security, and corresponding worship of generals, meanwhile, regularly boxes women out from the top tiers. Those who are elected struggle to secure leadership roles or placement on powerful committees. Women have served in only 18 of 246 cabinet positions in Israel’s history and never in three of the four most prestigious positions: minister of defense, interior, or finance.

Israelis of both genders should be deeply concerned. The value of women’s leadership is definitive. Leaders who reflect their populations better champion the needs of the very people they represent. They may have greater legitimacy, which can inspire greater confidence in government institutions. Women are more likely to champion social issues—including those that disproportionately affect women—that are often overlooked by male legislators, even when doing is to the detriment of their own careers. And modern challenges, particularly in a conflict-plagued region like the Middle East, require diverse ideas and innovation, which in turn require diverse actors.

So what are Israelis to do if they are to reverse the current trend toward less female representation? They can start by creating a leadership pipeline that takes in large numbers of trained, mobilized, and well-mentored women at the earliest stages of their careers. Political parties in Israel do a good job of harnessing talent among university cohorts—they need to focus on cultivating female talent in these spaces, too, and then on driving these women to enter local politics as well. Second, for parties that do hold primaries, women need equal access to private sources of campaign funds that will help drive them up to the top of the ticket. Third, individual parties should start implementing quotas to ensure women’s participation at the top, and government funding should reward those who do. Finally, for any of this to be possible, Israel’s male-dominated leadership must become vocal champions of equality.

Women’s leadership in Israel, and around the world, has a long way to go. But if Israel wishes to be the beacon of progress that it views itself as, it will need to take tangible steps to make the vision of trailblazing female leadership a modern reality.

Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. She was previously the director of strategic engagement at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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