Israel’s New Gov’t: More Female Ministers, Quality of Posts Stagnant
Women head a record eight of a possible 36 ministries but lead less important departments
The new Israeli government sworn in this week made history with the appointment of eight women to head ministries, doubling the previous record of four set several years ago.
The proportion of women in the cabinet is also at its highest-ever level at almost 24%, as the number of ministries increased to 34 on Sunday (and may yet go up to 36), compared to nearly 20% previously.
“In general, we can see a consistent and gradual improvement in the number of women elected to the Knesset in the last two decades, but this improvement did not translate into a parallel improvement in the cabinet,” Dr. Ofer Kenig, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line. “The proportion of women in the cabinet has finally correlated with the proportion of women in the Knesset.”
While having eight female ministers is certainly welcome, women still have a ways to go when it comes to advancement within the country’s political scene.
“The appointment of the most female ministers was a landmark in the representation of women in politics, but having said so, I think that numbers do not tell the whole story,” Kenig said.
“When you look at the positions to which these eight women were appointed, the picture is less encouraging. … We’ve never had a woman in the top position at the Finance Ministry or the Defense Ministry,” she said. “We have to pay attention not only to the quantity of appointments but the quality as well.”
Transportation Minister Miri Regev has the most senior ministry of all the women but Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director Israel Women’s Network, said the post is still not considered that important.
“Women got small ministries; Miri Regev got transportation, which is considered medium-plus. Women are out in the backseat in the Knesset and now they’re staying there,” she told The Media Line. “We are happy that there is a record number of women in government but it is still not even close to half, which is what we aim for.”
However, Regev, unhappy at losing out on the Public Security Ministry, has been promised the Foreign Ministry in 18 months’ time.
Margaliot hopes to improve the status of women in the government by having the cabinet members assign more women as directors-general, the top professional post within each ministry.
Einat Wilf, a former Knesset member and co-author of the recently published book The War of Return, argued that the individual ministries were not as powerful as they used to be, limiting women’s power in the small ministries even more.
“On the one level, there is advancement in terms of numbers and proportion, but it is happening at point when in general the government and the ministries are being relatively weakened compared to the concentration of power in the prime minister,” she told The Media Line.
This underscores the importance of having a female prime minister. Golda Meir was Israel’s only female head of government, serving from 1969 to 1974.
Dr. Gayil Talshir, an expert on crisis of democracy, Israeli politics and political ideology in the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University, argues that the traditionalist structure of Israeli society prevents women from getting further ahead.
“The status of both religion and the army in Israeli politics … leads to women having a problem getting treatment equal to men,” she told The Media Line.
While the first ultra-Orthodox female cabinet member, MK Omer Yankelevich from the Blue and White party, has been appointed to head the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, it is notable she did not come from either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties. United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas do not allow women on their slates of candidates for the Knesset.
“[Yankelevich’s] appointment is symbolic, an important symbol, because the haredi parties, of course, make the outrageous claim often made by men in power that their women, haredi women, are content to be behind the scenes and they do not actually want to be part of the Knesset. It is important to have … an ultra-Orthodox woman who can at least provide a voice for herself to counteract this claim,” Wilf told The Media Line.
Kenig agrees, adding: “It is important but the real breakthrough would be if ultra-Orthodox women could run in haredi parties.
“UTJ and Shas are in the same position as the Arab parties were seven or eight years ago, and today about a third of the Arab MKs are women,” she said.
There will be one less female member of Knesset than in the previous Israeli parliament, with women holding 29 out of 120 seats.
The increase in the power of the haredi parties − UTJ and Shas together have 16 seats − has also depressed the number of women in politics.
“The potential pool of available seats is smaller, leaving women with fewer seats to compete for,” Kenig said.
This, combined with the fact that there were not many women in the top 10 on the lists of candidates for the main parties − Likud and Blue and White − also did not help to boost women’s participation in national politics.
“Blue and White and Likud bring 70 seats with them [actually 69, before 16 MKs split from the former post-election and joined the opposition], which is over half the Knesset, and the [female] representation there is just not good enough,” Margaliot said. “These two parties and the ultra-Orthodox parties make up most of the coalition, and if there are no women in the latter then we don’t have enough.”
To improve this, Wilf said that people needed to make the importance of women in politics known to their representatives.
“Ultimately, politicians are very simple creatures. They respond to pressure and they respond to incentives. Only if they feel that that this a major issue, will they feel that they have to do anything about it.”
She cited one success of this strategy: Blue and White adding more women to its candidates list after public outrage over the lack of representation.
The Israel Women’s Network Margaliot said that quotas were necessary in order to achieve equal gender representation.
“If we want to get to 40% or 50% women among Knesset members, we need quotas,” she said. “The minimum Israel needs to do is to give more [campaign finance] money to parties that have equal representation; less than the minimum would be to take away money from parties that don’t have equal representation.
“What I believe should be done is that for every five seats, there need to be at least two men and two women,” Margaliot added.
Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first black female and Ethiopian-born cabinet minister, believes that the process to increase participation by women in politics begins in early childhood.
“We must work very hard in the education system when children are young to educate and motivate girls to be leaders,” she told The Media Line. “Young women in many cases don’t believe in themselves, that they can achieve [things] in the political arena.”
When it comes to female representation in government, Israel fares well vis-à-vis the Middle East, but not in comparison to Europe.
“Israel is doing much better in terms of the share of women in government and the parliament and of course equal rights. In comparison to the region, Israel is an egalitarian society, but it’s bad in comparison to Europe,” the Hebrew University’s Talshir said.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union-UN map, which rates countries based on women in leadership and other governing posts as of January 1, 2020, in Spain, for example, 66.7% of ministerial positions are held by women, and in Finland, the figure is 61.1%.
Turning to the Middle East, while at one point Lebanon did have more women than Israel as heads of ministries, six, Israel has now reclaimed the top spot in absolute numbers. However, proportionally, Lebanon leads with 31.6% of cabinet posts being held by women. Israel is currently tied with Egypt with approximately 24% of ministerial heads being women, placing it ahead of the United States, where the proportion is 17.4%.
Still, Israel’s numbers dwarf those of Saudi Arabia, which has no women heads of ministries, and Iraq, where women hold 4.5% of such posts.