Woman FM within reach of Israel’s highest office

Posted: September 2, 2008 in Political
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OCCUPIED-AL-QUDS: For the first time in 40 years, a woman is within reach of becoming the prime minister of Israel, a nation traditionally dominated by macho military types and a religious establishment decidedly lukewarm about equal rights for women.

Unlike Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin in the United States, Israel’s Tzipi Livni doesn’t talk about cracking any glass ceilings or empowering her country’s women.

But the tough-minded foreign minister’s gender is popping up in subtle ways ahead of a Sept 17 primary election of the ruling Kadima Party in which Livni is the front-runner. If she wins, she would be well positioned to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down amid a series of corruption probes.

Top male politicians have been accused of chauvinism by branding her with words like “weak’’ and “that woman.’’ And ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers who might prove to be kingmakers in the next government could be uncomfortable with a female leader. Former lawmaker Naomi Chazan says the jabs are built on “deep chauvinistic foundations.’’

“Livni, it is hinted, exhibits signs of weakness (or is it femininity?), and so is unworthy of taking over the reins of power,’’ she wrote in a recent op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post.

Livni adviser Gil Messing said she would not agree to be interviewed on the gender issue. The soft-spoken, 50-year-old Livni entered politics nine years ago after a brief career in the Mossad spy agency. She traded that in for a life as corporate lawyer, wife and mother of two sons, before joining politics as a protege of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She has earned a reputation as a pragmatic straight talker who disdains backroom politics.

Her father, Eitan Livni, was a Zionist underground hero who battled the British in pre-state Palestine and thought Israel should expand its borders into Arab lands. She initially shared that dream. But Livni eventually concluded it clashed irreconcilably with the reality of living among a fast-growing Palestinian population. During her relatively short tenure in politics, she has held six Cabinet posts, including minister of foreign affairs, justice and immigrant absorption. As foreign minister and vice premier, she has led Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, meant to end decades of conflict and produce a Palestinian state.

Last year Time magazine included her in its list of the world’s 100 most influential people, and she was No 52 in Forbes magazine’s recent ranking of the world’s 100 most powerful women.

But this resume apparently has not impressed political rivals in a nation at war that values toughness over sensitivity. Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister with an eye on his old job, recently played on an ad from Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid that suggested rival Barack Obama was not the man to handle a 3 am crisis call.

“The foreign minister, her background being what it is, is not cut out to make decisions, not at 3 in the morning and not at 3 in the afternoon,’’ said Barak, who also served as military chief and is Israel’s most-decorated soldier.

The comment was widely regarded in the media as veiled sexism, as was his pointed reference to Livni by her full name, Tzipora – Hebrew for “bird’’ and a name aides say she despises.

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister and military chief, is Livni’s chief rival to replace Olmert as Kadima’s leader. Mofaz’s staffers have been quoted as saying Livni has a “a weak personality.’’

Ultra-Orthodox parties, who could be crucial to Livni’s efforts to form a new government, would be uneasy with a woman at the helm because “it’s not modest’’ in their world view, says Professor Menachem Friedman, an expert on religious society in Israel. But they’d join a Livni-led government if it would promise them more money for pet causes and no territorial concessions to the Palestinians on Jerusalem, Friedman said. “If she gives them what they want, then they’ll accept her,’’ he said. Spokesman Roi Lachmanovich of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, the parliament’s largest religious faction, said “Shas has no problem with Tzipi Livni as prime minister of Israel.’’

Some lawmakers denied Barak and Mofaz were being sexist. “I am strong and you are weak’’ is part of Israel’s political discourse, said veteran lawmaker Michael Eitan. Male candidates without security experience would also be criticised, he said.

During a recent appearance before foreign reporters in Jerusalem, Livni insisted she had plenty of security experience, including a key role during Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war. That war has been the target of intense criticism in Israel, but Livni emerged from it largely unscathed because of her calls to end the fighting quickly.

The Israeli public appears to have little problem with having a woman as their leader. Polls show Livni ahead of Mofaz in the Kadima primary and would fare better than him in a general election. She’s also significantly ahead of Barak in national polls, though a race against her other key rival, hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would be tighter.

Back in 1969, Israel took the extraordinary step of choosing a woman as prime minister: Golda Meir. In the four decades since, women remain significantly underrepresented in Israel’s government and the economy, though they have made important strides in many areas.

Meir resigned in disgrace after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973. Israel repelled the advancing armies, but took heavy casualties in a war that many Israelis still see as their country’s most humiliating military episode.

Since then, no woman until Livni has come close to holding Israel’s reins of power. But because of her reputation for honesty, in a country where a series of high-ranking officials have been convicted or accused of corruption, Livni could become Israel’s next prime minister if she plays her cards right, they say.

“She has a clean-hands image, and this is a time when we’re looking for decent, honest people,’’ Chazan told The Associated Press. “She meets this criterion, and it’s very, very important.’’


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