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Record Number of Women Win on Israel’s Election Day, but Progress Remains Elusive
Yifat Sasha-Biton, No. 2 in Israel's New Hope party, speaks during a visit to the Academic and Technology College of Tel-Hai in northern Israel, March 9, 2021. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

Record Number of Women Win on Israel’s Election Day, but Progress Remains Elusive

Likud makes seniority history ▪ Six out of the seven parties with woman at No. 2 spot enter parliament

A projected 30 women will enter the Israeli legislature, a record for an Election Day, but it appears female representation in parliament will remain roughly the same for the 24th Knesset as in past sessions.

“It’s likely more women will get in [once a new government is formed] because of the ‘Norwegian Law’ that a minister can be replaced with a new MK, but for an Election Day, it’s a record,” Michal Gera Margaliot, former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, told The Media Line.

Emily Schrader, research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute and an Israeli political consultant, notes that this achievement is not so advanced when considering other factors.

“While 30 female MKs is the record [for the beginning of a Knesset session], it’s actually not an increase from the previous Knesset and it’s certainly not representative of 50% of the population. I’m relieved to see that the number hasn’t dropped given how few parties are led by women, however we are far away from actual equality in representation,” she told The Media Line.

“Being 25% of the Knesset was a great step, a decade ago. … Women of all kinds belong at the decision-making table: religious, secular, Jewish and Arab,” Schrader said.

On the candidates list of Likud, the party of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, fourth-ranked Miri Regev, currently transportation minister, is the most senior woman out of 30 party members projected to enter the Knesset, followed by Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel (No. 8); novelist and radio personality Galit Distal Atbaryan (12); MK Etty Atia (20); MK Keren Barak (23); Community Empowerment and Advancement Minister Orly Levi-Abekasis (26); MK Keti Shitrit (27); and MK May Golan (30).

In the centrist Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, six women are forecast to enter the Knesset out of 18 predicted mandates: MK Orna Barbivai (No. 2), Israel’s only ever female major-general; MK Karin Elharrar (4); former Social Equality Minister MK Meirav Cohen (5); former MK Merav Ben-Ari (9); Yesh Atid Western Negev head Nira Shpak (17); and Karmiel Deputy Mayor Tania Mazarsky (18).

On the center-left Blue and White List, headed by Benny Gantz, Immigrant Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (No. 2) and Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen (5) are set to return to the legislature along with six male counterparts.

Out of seven projected seats for the right-wing Yamina party, former Justice Minister MK Ayelet Shaked (No. 2) is the sole woman.

In Labor, the only party to be headed by a woman, MK Merav Michaeli, three other women round out the seven projected slots: journalist and political consultant Emilie Moatti (3), attorney Efrat Rayten (5) and filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana (7).

The female representatives for the left-wing Meretz and the Islamist United Arab List, each projected to get five mandates, are MK Tamar Zandberg (No. 2) and peace activist Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (4) of the former, and social worker MK Iman Khatib-Yasin (5) of the latter.

The female representatives in the parties projected to win six seats include activist in the field of mental health Michal Woldiger (No. 2) and MK Orit Strock (5) of the far-right Religious Zionism party, former Housing Minister MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (2) and MK Sharren Haskel (5) of the right-wing anti-Netanyahu New Hope party, MK Aida Touma-Sliman (4) of the Arab Joint List, and MK Yulia Malinovsky (5) of right-wing anti-Netanyahu Yisrael Beitenu.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, with seven and nine projected seats, respectively, do not allow women to run for Knesset.

Dr. Yofi Tirosh, a gender equality expert at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, argues that this is one of the reasons women’s representation in Israel is low.

“That’s 15 or 16 Knesset members, which is approximately 15%, that don’t allow women to take part,” she told The Media Line. “It’s unfortunately something that the Knesset allows and I think it’s a modern form of disenfranchisement to ban women.

“This is the kind of atmosphere where religious rights and piety are combined with a very extreme form of modesty where the very presence of a woman in the public sphere is an interference, impure,” Tirosh continued.

“The idea of separation segregation of sexes is okay in Israel. Parts of the potential [Netanyahu] coalition we might see here, like the ultra-Orthodox parties and Religious Zionism, either actively promote segregated hours at public places, segregated driving courses, academic studies, military units, etc., or have been indifferent [toward the practice], like [the [Yamina party of Naftali] Bennett and Likud,” she said.

“They just don’t care much about the issue; they let those who care about it get their way,” Tirosh continued. “It’s a trend very deep in Israeli society and it impedes women’s autonomy…”

This attitude, she said, has spilled over to the Knesset floor, with female legislators being admonished for immodesty and a Shas lawmaker asking a female Likud MK to be moved after she was assigned a seat next to him.

“He asked for them to switch her, which was shocking in itself, and what was more shocking was that the Knesset agreed,” Tirosh said.

Following UTJ and Shas, Yamina is set to have the worst female representation, at some 14.1% of its delegation. Female representation is about 16.7% for both Yisrael Beitenu and the Arab Joint List. The United Arab List includes 20% female representation, Blue and White 25% and Likud has about 26.7%.

A third of the Religious Zionism, New Hope and Yesh Atid candidate lists are women.

The two left-wing parties have the highest female representation, with Meretz at 40% and Labor at 57.1%.

Margaliot said that it is no accident that Labor has the highest proportion of female Knesset representation.

“It’s the only party that built its list as a woman, man, woman, man, which is why four women got in; they have more women than men,” she said. “Merav Michaeli has accomplished a major achievement: She took a party that everyone thought was finished and now she got seven mandates, which is more than many people dreamed of.”

Schrader agrees.

“I am… extremely happy that Labor exceeded expectations, as the only party led by a woman, and the only party with gender representation that reflects the population,” she said. “Regardless of whether or not one agrees with her policies, Merav Michaeli has been a champion for women’s equality throughout her career and deserves a lot of respect for that and for living by her principles as a leader, which is something that’s lacking severely in political leadership.”

Margaliot argues it is not just important to look at the number of women elected, but also at their level of seniority.

A record seven significant parties entered into the election with women at the No. 2 spot, and they almost all made it into parliament: Meretz, New Hope, Religious Zionism, Yamina, Blue and White, and Yesh Atid. The New Economy party was the sole one that failed to meet the 3.25 electoral threshold.

Margaliot also said Likud fares well in this regard.

“It’s the first time in Likud history that there are three women in the first 10 places, which is significant,” she said.

The third way Margaliot said representation needs to be scrutinized is how feminist the legislators are.

“It’s a parameter about women, but it’s also a parameter that we look at men, because we need strong allies to promote more feminist policies,” she said.

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