Women, Security and Israeli Politics – Going Backwards

Based on international comparisons, Israel is in a 'good' spot in the middle. The number of women in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, reached a record high last year, but even then they accounted for only 30% of all Knesset Members (34 out of the 120 Knesset members). The first quarter of 2019 catches Israel at the height of an election campaign. However, it is already projected that following the elections the number of women Members of Knesset will be even lower. And, as everyone knows, the head count tells only part of the story.

Teaser Image Caption
Israeli MKs during a committee session

Based on international comparisons, Israel is in a 'good' spot in the middle. The number of women in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, reached a record high last year, but even then they accounted for only 30% of all Knesset Members (34 out of the 120 Knesset members). The first quarter of 2019 catches Israel at the height of an election campaign. However, it is already projected that following the elections the number of women Members of Knesset will be even lower. And, as everyone knows, the head count tells only part of the story.

In 2019, in the wake of the global #MeToo campaign, one could have expected something different in general, and in Israel in particular. But the election campaign has proven once again that Israel is far away from Europe not only in kilometers, but also in values. In the current election campaign, gender equality has not occupied a prominent place on the public, political or media agenda. Other issues of importance to women that are advanced by activists and feminist organizations have not been highlighted in the election campaign – the eradication of violence against women being just one example.

Since its establishment, Israel has been trapped in a violent conflict with its neighbors, which erupts intermittently. Most of the time, the conflict simmers beneath the surface and threatens to erupt. This reality is important, not only because it describes Israel's unique position and differentiates it from other developed countries around the world, and from Europe in particular. Rather, this reality is important because it entrenches a mindset, social perceptions and political behavior, that have a direct and indirect impact on gender equality.

The inclination to get stuck in the comfort zone is true even in situations characterized by a violent and persistent conflict. Absurdly, the comfort zone of most Israelis is the conflict itself. This is what we are familiar with and have tools to deal with. This reality has a language and protocols, the majority of which are associated with the army, military means and military operations, with the basic premise being that the army is the most significant and most important organization. In such a situation, the option of resuming the peace process and signing a political agreement seems like a risky venture since it embodies a great degree of uncertainty.

The army is essentially a men's organization. This is the case in Europe and it is true all the more so in Israel. Even though compulsory military service in Israel applies to both women and men, some positions are still not open to women, and only one woman has served thus far in the top brass of the army. That being the case, the army is not a vehicle for social mobility of women.

Why is this important? Because the army is one of the most influential organizations in the Israeli society, and the army has been, and still is, a breeding ground for political leaders. Experience has shown that any political party in Israel that professes to present a realistic candidate for Prime Minister – excluding the parties that represent Arab or ultra-Orthodox citizens – must put someone with an extensive security-military record in a high place on their list, such as a former general. This paradigm reached a peak this year. The only party that poses a threat to the 10-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a 'party of generals' - as it is popularly referred to - headed by a former Chief of Staff, with two predecessors close behind him on the list.

Someone in Europe may ask, why is that a bad thing? Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with a person who has served his country all his life, and owing to his concern about its security and wellbeing, goes into politics and applies his experience to the civilian world as well. But, in practice, this phenomenon frames the discourse, deepens gender inequality and entrenches prevailing views about the peace process.

In a country where the record of a former general is more highly regarded than any other social action, men have a distinct advantage. In a country where national security is at the top of the public agenda, it appears that only those who come from the military world can properly tackle complex security issues.

Israeli society lives under a sense of existential threat, which is nurtured by politicians (especially from the right wing). In such a reality, critical civic issues are relegated to the bottom of the priority list. Discussing gender equality is currently perceived as a privilege due to the need to contend with enemies who want to destroy us. When a threat exists, there is no time to deal with wage disparities, childcare facilities or improving the healthcare system.

The state budget also reflects these priorities, with the defense budget accounting for nearly twenty percent of the total budget.

In this kind of atmosphere, there is no place for demanding equality, and any general or expert who comes from the ranks of the army will be considered more relevant than any woman who comes from a civilian background, regardless of how qualified, how educated or how experienced she is. This is close to an axiom and any attempt to break out of this paradigm is treated with open contempt. If we go back a decade to the election campaign of 2008, it calls to mind Tzipi Livni, who at the time headed a large political party and was running for Prime Minister. Her candidacy led to a misogynous public discourse, a debate that revolved around the question: Who would you like to see picking up the 'red phone' at two in the morning? Or in other words: Is a woman who did not have a military career and does not have battlefield experience capable of making decisions under pressure, in times of emergency, including a decision to launch a military operation or go to war? Livni ended up receiving most of the votes in that election, but did not manage to form a coalition.

Despite the peak in the number of women MPs in the outgoing Knesset as indicated above, it appears that there will be fewer women in the next Knesset. However, representation is only part of the story. To bring about profound change, Israel must modify the paradigm according to which generals are the ones who understand national security, and women are assigned other roles around the table of decision-makers. If Israel will be wise enough to involve women who come from different areas of expertise - women who were active in civic affairs and acquired knowhow and experience - in decision-making processes that affect military, security and foreign policy, there is a very good chance that the discourse would be more diverse, pioneering and creative. It could even facilitate a breakthrough in the conflict with the Palestinians.

However, even before the polling stations have opened, one can already say that there is little likelihood of women receiving a prominent role around the table of decision-makers who deal with those issues.

In the Likud party headed by Netanyahu, which in the past decade has led the coalition, there are only three women in the top twenty slots. And in the new party of generals, women fill six of the top twenty slots. Almost none of them are considered 'experts' in security matters. Consequently, it is highly improbable that the three women in Likud and the six women in the generals' party will be players in the political and security arena.

The other parties are smaller, and for that reason their influence on the next coalition will carry less weight and their ability to advance women to key positions will be limited.

Against this backdrop, it is worth recalling that Israel differs from Europe in another fundamental sphere: in Israel, there is no separation between religion and state. Sanctioned by law, religion virtually controls every aspect of our private lives. Israeli citizens cannot get married unless through the religious establishment. Marriages between people of different religions are not possible, including civil marriages - not to mention marriages between the members of the LGBTQ community. There is a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, who account for over 10% of the population. Their community is led by rabbis, who also determine the composition of the party lists that represent them in the Knesset. Those lists, which are currently three in number, include no women. In the outgoing Knesset, the ultra-Orthodox parties had 13 seats out of the total 120.

Apart from the ultra-Orthodox sector that excludes women, women are also marginalized and distanced from the discourse in the other parties in which former generals and members of the security agencies play leading roles. This holds true in general, and in the key decision-making structures pertaining to security and foreign affairs, in particular. The latter discourse is led by a group of men who head most of the parties represented in the Knesset, including former senior personnel from the security establishment. They spent most of their lives in uniform, did not mingle with the civil society, did not take their sick child to the doctor, did not attend parents' night at school, or go grocery shopping. They have difficulty delving into civic issues and feel much more comfortable talking about the army, national security and foreign affairs – which they were engaged in all of their professional lives.

Therefore, one can say with near certainty that there will be even fewer women sitting around the next government table (in the outgoing government, 4 of the 22 ministers were women). Furthermore, the expected composition of the government will deprioritize gender equality and other issues important to women, will not advance gender mainstreaming, and will not make provisions for an equitable distribution of state resources.

In such a situation, the slim chances of achieving a breakthrough in the peace process are a cause of even greater concern because all the security experts are 'products' of the same military school. The fear is that people who spent most of their lives in uniform will find it hard to adopt a broad and civilian perspective like the one that characterizes women who developed careers in the business or public sectors or in the civil society.