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Israeli Women Push to Change Knesset Politics

Monday, March 20, 2006

A militaristic atmosphere curbs any hopes, female parliamentarians in Israel say, that the March 28 elections will expand their ranks. But some women are forging to top government posts and a women's caucus has legislative milestones to savor.

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A militaristic atmosphere curbs any hopes, female parliamentarians in Israel say, that the March 28 elections will expand their ranks. But some women are forging to top government posts and a women's caucus has legislative milestones to savor.
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Nadia Hilo

TEL AVIV, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)--By garnering enough votes from Jews and Arabs alike, Nadia Hilo placed high enough in the Labor Party's national primaries in Israel in January to be considered a shoo-in for the March 28 parliamentary elections.

This is Hilo's third run for office. After two unsuccessful attempts, the outspoken grandmother of three is blunt about the obstacles that she has faced in trying to get elected as an Arab woman to the Israeli parliament.

"With Arab women, it's double discrimination," she told Women's eNews. "One, they belong to a circle of women in general and everything that discriminates against women also discriminates against them. In addition, they are a minority. It's another kind of discrimination that lowers their representation."

Hilo, who is vice president of Na'amat, the largest women's organization in the country, is poised to become the second Arab woman to serve in the Knesset. The first was Hussniya Jabara, who served as a member of the Zionist, left-wing Meretz party from 1999 to 2003.

Arab women also face prejudice within their own traditional society and none has ever been elected to an Arab party, Hilo said.

There are currently no Arab women serving in Israel's 120-member parliament though Arabs with Israeli citizenship make up 17 percent of the nation's population.

But it's not only Arab women who are scarce in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

At 15 percent, women's parliamentary representation in Israel is above the Arab world's average of 6 percent and equals that of the U.S. Congress. But it trails far behind the Scandinavian countries' 40 percent average.


Golda's Foothold Is Slipping

Although Israel was led by the late Prime Minister Golda Meir from 1969 to 1974 and has several strong female candidates running, political observers expect the percentage of women to decrease or remain the same in the next session.

"People still believe that men fit politics better than women," said Hanna Herzog, a sociology and anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University. "As long as the agenda will be controlled by security issues, by the Israeli-Arab conflict, it will be difficult for women."

Knesset member Colette Avital, a Labor Party candidate and former Israeli consul general in New York, agrees. "People continue to think defense is something which belongs only to men," said Avital. Today only one woman, Naomi Blumenthal, serves on the 15-member Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

High-ranking military heroes--nearly always men--play a prominent role in the Knesset and are coveted by political parties eager to demonstrate their concern for national security.

In addition, running for open primaries is costly and women often do not have the same financial resources or political connections as men, Hilo said.

Besides income disparities and preference for those with decorated military backgrounds, women face other obstacles in Israeli politics.

Arab parties usually do not have women on their slates and two out of three religious parties--the Sephardic Torah Guardians, called Shas, and United Torah Judaism--have not had any female candidates. Parties that exclude women are expected to take at least 20 of the 120 parliament seats, said Avital Shachar, executive director of the Israel Women's Network, a women's lobby based in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.


Promoting Equality at Top Level

In 1992, a group of female Knesset members active in promoting women's issues founded a committee to advance women's status toward equality in representation. The Committee on the Status of Women, which is today made up of seven female and five male members, brings together Knesset members from across party lines to prevent discrimination, combat violence against women, and promote equality in politics, personal status and education.

Women who serve on this committee are considered the heart of the women's caucus. Since the Israeli parliament finances all political parties, the women's caucus helped pass a law last December that gives additional money to political parties that end up with more than 30 percent of female representatives.

Female members--in conjunction with grassroots organizations--also succeeded in pushing through a law last July mandating inclusion of women for peace and security negotiations and policy. Many peace negotiations had been previously conducted only by men.

Knesset member Nissim Dahan, a male representative from the ultra-orthodox party Shas, frowns on such developments. Asked when women would be placed on their candidate list, he told 500 high school students at a February assembly that "a woman can be in 100,000 other roles but shouldn't be exposed to the public front," according to a recent report by Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily newspaper.


Forging Ahead in Office

Some women, however, have managed to forge their way to prominent government posts.

Tzipi Livni, a member of the new centrist party Kadima, was recently appointed minister of foreign affairs and has been discussed as a prospect for defense minister and even, further along, prime minister.

"She's a tough cookie," Shachar said. "The fact that she is a woman should not mislead anyone. She will be tough and represent our policy in a very good way."

Several current female candidates have made names for themselves as strong champions of social change such as Knesset member Zahava Gal-On of the Meretz Party who has led the fight in combating trafficking of women in the country.

Other prominent women include the Likud Party's Limor Livnat, the former minister of education, culture and sport who once led a parliamentary committee that investigated the murder of women by their spouses. Knesset member Yuli Tamir of Labor is a civil rights leader and an original founder of Peace Now, an Israeli pacifist group based in Tel Aviv.

With the high caliber of women competing this cycle, many are hopeful women's issues will rise higher on the political agenda.

Hilo, who lives in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Jaffa, said she will continue to work for the advancement of women, to improve relationships between Arabs and Jews and to bring about equality and social justice.

"I say 'I am one for all.' That's my slogan," she said. "It's been my path for 30 years."

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

The Knesset--
The Committee on the Status of Women:
http://www.knesset.gov.il/committees/eng/committee_eng.asp?c_id=11

Israel Women's Network:
http://www.iwn.org.il/iwn.asp

NA'AMAT USA:
http://www.naamat.org