Gaby Lasky

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)–On the eve of this country’s national elections, the voices of women are mere whispers in the corridors of power.

With elections scheduled for today, campaigning for the 16th Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, is at is peak. Women, who outnumber men in Israel’s civil society movements, are featured on party lists, but there are no assurances that once elected they will play aformidable role in decision-making.

This year, 56 of the top party candidates are women. There are 27 political parties registered for the general elections and opinion polls show that Likud, led by 74-year-old Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is likely to win. Analysts predict that only 14 parties will be elected to the Knesset and that the number of women representatives will increase by about five. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dominated the campaign season, with domestic issues related to the well-being of women taking a side role.

Of the 17 women currently in government, six representatives are in the center-left Labor Party. Meretz follows with four. Likud, the conservative ruling party, has three women representatives and the smaller Hadash, Shinui, Center Party and Yisrael Be’aliyah parties each have one member.

Traditionally, only a handful of women are elected into the Knesset, the country’s national legislative body. Since 1974, when Golda Meir resigned as Israel’s fourth prime minister, no woman has served in the highest office in the land.

“As a woman, you have to fight for what you want to say, even among peace builders and companions of your ideals,” said Gaby Lasky, a renowned human rights lawyer and peace activist who is running on the leftist Meretz Party’s election list.

In a country where about 20 percent of the population is classified as Arab-Israelis, Labor’s Hussniya Jabara is the only woman of Arab descent in the Knesset.

Equal Treatment at Work Among Issues Consuming Female Candidates

Like Lasky, women candidates are running on platforms to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They also want to pass laws that would improve women’s rights and recognize them as equal to men in the workplace. Issues around healthcare, retired Israelis, education and the rights of minorities have also been highlighted in the campaigns.

Lasky is campaigning for an affirmative action policy to address inequalities on the job. “Sadly, there is no equality between men and women in the workplace,” she said. “Women may do the same job but they get paid less.”

Colette Avital

Colette Avital, a Labor representative in the last Knesset, said that in any area women have to prove they are competent to hold the position they want. “In politics, no one just gives you a gift,” Avital said. “You have to fight and show that you are the best for the position.”

She noted that the 17 women voted into the 15th Knesset more than doubled the female representation in the 14th, suggesting that women are being taken more seriously as political players.

“Public opinion is shifting and they now understand that it is important to elect women,” said Avital, who has served as ambassador to Portugal and as consulate general in New York. She also has chaired and served on numerous parliamentary committees.

Analyst Says Women Legislators Neglect Their ‘Bread and Butter’ Issues

Despite their small numbers, Lasky believes that women in the Knesset have been at the forefront of advocating and passing human rights, social and health laws. But Wadie Abunassar, a political analyst at the University of Tel Aviv, disagrees. Women in the Knesset, he said, have so far failed to make a dent on Israeli politics and have been drowned out by men.

“They have not made a difference in governance,” Abunassar said. “They mainly focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and have neglected the bread and butter, everyday issues ordinary women face.”

Women leaders could raise their status by placing greater emphasis on domestic issues, and, in time, Israeli society could once again embrace a woman leader, Abunassar believes.

Avital believes, however, that in order for a women candidate to become prime minister, she would have to be prepared to use force to defend the Jewish state, an unlikely occurrence. Thus the opportunity for a woman to lead Israel again will only come, she said, if there is peace.

“It is impossible to have a woman prime minister as long as there is a state of war and acts of terrorism,” Avital said.

Peroshni Govender is a reporter at The Star, Africa’s leading newspaper.

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