TEL AVIV, Israel—With Israel’s newly formed government, women’s rights activists are heralding a new day for the country.
The new unity government has ended the country’s nearly three-year political deadlock, and the 12-year rule of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. After surviving Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to thwart its formation, the newly sworn-in “change government” of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Islamist parties faces its most difficult challenge yet: governing. With little agreement on anything more than uniting a deeply divided nation and keeping Netanyahu out of office, many here wonder how long the government can last.
Yet one largely overlooked area of consensus—and hope for many—is the issue of women’s rights. In addition to including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s 73-year-history, this government also boasts a record number of female ministers—nine out of 27.
The fragile government, with a knife-edge majority of 61 out of 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, must find as much common ground as it can to survive, secure the legislative wins it needs to prove to voters that the alliance of ideological rivals was justified, and show Israeli citizens that the country can in fact thrive without Netanyahu at the helm. (The new government is supposed to be led for the first two years by right-wing, pro-settler Naftali Bennett and the remaining two years by centrist Yair Lapid.) Tackling problems like gender inequality and domestic violence could prove to be unifying causes for this fractious coalition, according to experts.
“There are huge differences between these parties,” said Abraham Diskin, former chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “What unites them is animosity toward Netanyahu. But everybody can agree that violence against women should be restricted.”
Israel’s political future could influence the future for women in Israel, as well as elsewhere in the greater region, where Israel’s strong ties with the United States, in particular, affect everything from sanctions on Iran to U.S. military spending.
Women’s rights advocates say they see a silver lining in the diverse coalition’s lack of ideological accord. Because the new government intends to avoid controversial subjects that could lead to its collapse—particularly those relating to the Palestinians—it plans to focus on domestic issues which the parties can agree on, including some causes that are paramount to women.
Israel’s political right and left are in fact united on many fronts, particularly women’s rights (abortion, for example, is heavily subsidized by the state). Their one major sticking point is the conflict with and treatment of the Palestinians.
Despite recent Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 243 Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas-fired rockets that killed 13 people in Israel in May, and simmering tensions over land disputes, the new government is expected to try and focus on anything but that issue. It will be difficult to ignore: Days into the new leadership, Israeli aircraft bombed Gaza, targeting Hamas, which had launched incendiary balloons into Israel in retaliation for a government-approved far-right Jewish march through Jerusalem in which some shouted, “death to Arabs.”
In addition to passing a budget for the first time in three years, building badly needed new hospitals and mending the country’s post-pandemic economy, the new government plans to advance gender equality, fight the widespread gun violence plaguing Israel’s Arab community, and tackle a long-simmering crisis of domestic violence that was intensified by COVID-19, according to coalition agreements released ahead of the government’s swearing-in on Sunday. There is a great deal of work to be done, experts say, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which set back advancements in gender equality across the globe, and after 12 consecutive years of Netanyahu’s rule.
“To say that Netanyahu’s government would not get an outstanding grade on advancing women’s rights would be an understatement,” said Gali Etzion, who heads the legislation department at NA’AMAT, Israel’s largest women’s rights NGO.
While Israel offers arguably more freedom to its female citizens than elsewhere in the Middle East, it struggles with many of the same problems women face in other developed nations.
Women in Israel earn 67 percent of what men earn, according to the 2020 Gender Index conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. And among Arab women, the gaps are even more stark. Only 30 percent of Arab women participate in the labor force in Israel, compared to 60 percent of Arab men, 60 percent of the general female population, and 68 percent of the general male public.
Domestic violence, particularly against Arab women, has also plagued the country. Arab citizens make up 21 percent of Israel’s population of nine million people. But of the approximately 20 Israeli women who are reported killed by a partner or family member each year, many of whom previously sought out help, over half of them are Arab women, according to NA’AMAT, citing government data. Etzion and other activists say the actual figures are much higher than those reported to authorities
In 2017, in response to the growing outcry over domestic violence, Netanyahu’s government approved a $77-million five-year plan to combat the crisis. Yet the budget necessary to carry out that plan was never allocated. Women’s rights activists hope that fulfilling that plan will be one of this new government’s early achievements.
“Although this will be a very difficult and complex government to operate, I’m definitely hopeful,” said Etzion. While it is anyone’s guess how long this government will last, “there are members who have worked overtime to promote gender equality and women’s rights,” she said. “I do have great expectations and I do believe that there are people in this government for whom gender equality are their core values.”
Indeed, for many of the women in Israel’s new government—and some of the men—women’s rights are among their fundamental priorities. Most prominent among them is Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, Israel’s new transportation minister, a former journalist and feminist activist who has championed women’s rights for decades. As a member of Israel’s parliament since 2013, Michaeli has advanced over a dozen pieces of legislation to protect and assist women in crisis, and fought for more government funding to aid survivors of sexual assault, according to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.
Incoming Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party who broke away to form his own party, New Hope, was an early leader of the right-wing effort to replace the now-former prime minister. Along with Oded Forer, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, both politicians are former chairs of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, which Etzion worked closely with to help pass various laws to protect survivors of domestic violence. Among them was a bill Sa’ar passed on his last day in the Knesset before he left to form his new party. That legislation changed the laws regarding custodianship to prevent a parent who either killed their spouse or raped one of their children to continue to be the guardian of their children.
“When people have a mission to do something, they can work together,” said Etzion. “I think gender equality should cross party lines and different beliefs.”
One priority that many women in Israel and the Jewish diaspora have long waited to see fulfilled is the expansion of the small egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In 2016, after years of activism by the feminist group Women of the Wall, Netanyahu approved a plan to expand the space at one of the holiest sites in Judaism. The Western Wall is the last remnant of the Second Jewish Temple, built by Herod the Great around 516 B.C. and destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Bowing to political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties that had significant power in his government, Netanyahu quickly scrapped the plan. The new government reportedly plans to implement it.
For Arab women in Israel, one of the most hopeful elements of this new government—aside from its end to the premiership of Netanyahu, who often vilified Israel’s Arab population —is its plan to combat crime and illegal weapons in the Arab community, which suffers from high levels of discrimination, poverty, and unemployment.
“This is the most important issue for Arab-Israeli women,” said Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, an Arab citizen of Israel and the director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “This affects our sons, our husbands, our brothers, ourselves.”
Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am—an Islamist Arab party, which seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state and calls for the right of return for Palestinians who say they were expelled in 1948—made history by joining this coalition and campaigned on this very issue. “Here, I expect great achievements from Ra’am,” said Haj-Yahya. “Abbas understands that if there is no improvement on the issue that is most important to the Arab-Israeli community, he won’t be able to justify his joining this government. Budgets will not be enough. This is an issue of survival.”
Part of Ra’am’s agreement to join the coalition government was its pledge to adopt a five-year plan worth nearly $1 billion aimed at curbing crime in the Arab sector, in addition to a $150-million plan for development in the long-neglected Arab community.
The eruption of violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews in May could prove to be a rallying force for action after years of government neglect of this long-simmering crisis, added Haj-Yahya.
Any advancements for women in Israel put forth by the new government will have little bearing on the daily lives of women in the Palestinian territories, as they are governed by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and by the Islamist militant group Hamas in Gaza. Palestinian elections have not been held since 2006, and both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority restrict women’s rights. Abortion is illegal in the Palestinian Territories and women must have permission from a “guardian” to travel from the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to a Hamas-run court, as well as permission from Israel or Egypt, which control Gaza’s borders.
Despite renewed hope around Israel’s new government, not all women’s rights activists are optimistic about the prospects of change in Israel.
“There being more Arab lawmakers in this government doesn’t mean that they will work towards women’s rights,” said Insaf Abu Shareb, a Bedouin women’s rights activist and attorney who has worked for over a decade to fight against polygamy and honor killings in Israel’s Bedouin community.
“It could be the opposite,” she said, noting that Ra’am is an Islamist party whose voters have highly traditional and patriarchal views of women.
Activists say they are less hopeful when it comes to issues of religion and state. In Israel, there is no separation between the two. Marriage, divorce, and other family matters are handled by religious authorities, either Sharia courts for Muslims or Rabbinical courts for Jews. This is why, for example, Israel does not provide the option of civil marriage for LGBTQ couples, despite being seen as relatively progressive.
Despite the array of ideologies in Israel’s new coalition government, both religious and secular, the country’s Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox political parties, find themselves out of the government. This past week, when a photograph of the new government circulated online, the Haredi news site Behaderey Haredim published the photograph of the politicians standing shoulder to shoulder, with nine of their faces blurred—the faces of the women.