‘I don’t know her’: How Israeli elections disregard women voters

By ignoring women's policy preferences, Israeli parties are not just deepening gender inequality — they're shifting the country further right.

Israel will hold its fourth election in two years on March 23, and it is likely to be yet another referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership. The fixation on “anti-Bibi” sentiments, however, prevents voters from identifying and articulating actual policy preferences — much of which is currently anchored firmly within Israel’s right-wing camp. Whether or not Netanyahu is able to hold on to the premiership, his coalition of right-wing extremists remains, while the current leading alternatives to Netanyahu are even further to the right than he is in their economic and military positions.

Despite many explanations given over the years, the right wing trajectory in Israel over the last few decades is perhaps best explained by patterns of voting among men. Those who are more likely to support right-wing parties are on average more religious, of lower socioeconomic status, living in the periphery, and are men. Interestingly, most of the parties today are not only to the right of the general Israeli public on social issues, but diverge significantly from most women voters in Israel.

Political parties are able to disregard women voters in part because so little is known about the gender voting gap in Israel. Yet this should be vital information, particularly for parties on the left and center-left.

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The “traditional” gender voting gap describes women voters being more likely to vote for right wing or conservative political parties compared to men. But according to recent research, there is an observable, modern gender voting gap in Israel, which shows that women voters are more likely to vote for parties that are politically on the left. This phenomenon began in Israel in the 1990s, as more women entered the labor force and accessed higher education, subsequently generating support for pro-labor politics and social services; and it was particularly apparent in 2009 with the presence of several women-led political parties, all on the left and center-left.

Among the underreported and oft ignored issues is the surge of grassroots activism among women — both Jewish and Palestinian — over the past five years in Israel. But despite women’s relative visibility in grassroots activism, they are notably absent from policy debates and traditional party politics. Political parties often rely on grassroots movements to inform policy-making, yet Israelis miss the opportunity to force parties to go beyond gender symbols and token women members and instead pursue substantive representation. By ignoring this gap between activists and political parties, the media and Israeli voters contribute to gender inequality in Israel.

The lack of public discourse about how women voters differ from men voters has allowed parties to avoid making explicit appeals to women. Parties — overwhelmingly controlled by men — can continue to act as though they are promoting gender-neutral policies, rather than policies with clearly discriminatory implications. It is a vicious cycle: parties prioritize loyal voters but make no effort to consider sub-populations, and as a result, the political priorities of those groups are ignored. This is why the recognition of the electoral power of the Black population in the United States and the growing leverage of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, has enabled significant advocacy on behalf of the community in the halls of power. The same strategy applies to women, too.

Not a monolith

Although women in Israel on average are more likely to support left-wing parties, they are not a monolith. Women’s voting patterns in Israel are impacted to varying degrees by geographic location and socioeconomic status. In wealthier and more central or urban residential areas, women are far more likely than men to vote for left-wing parties; in some cases, the difference is in the double digits. In areas of Israel that are geographically peripheral or distant from the population center, with high poverty levels, women are more likely to vote for right-wing parties.

Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni waves to supporters during a rally in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2009. Livni's party edged out Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud in Israel's election, winning 28 seats to his 27. But after failing to form a majority coalition, Netanyahu ended up forming a government. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni waves to supporters during a rally in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2009. Livni’s party edged out Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in Israel’s election, winning 28 seats to his 27. But after failing to form a majority coalition, Netanyahu ended up forming a government. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

These same factors also impact turnout among women: poor women are less likely to be involved in political activity, less likely to vote, and express a great deal of distrust and lack of hope in political institutions.

These patterns will play a significant role in the upcoming Israeli election. Much like the rest of the world, women in Israel have suffered disproportionately under the COVID-19 pandemic: more women have lost their jobs while their caretaking responsibilities have increased. If the pandemic has worsened economic inequality and the burdens on women, will we see an increase of women’s support for right-wing parties? Will the “shecession” contribute to the demise of left-wing parties? And will the ongoing crisis force right-wing parties to make explicit appeals to women?

Socially progressive, hawkish on security

One of the main explanations for the modern gender voting gap are changes in women’s access to education, jobs, and reproductive choice. Social scientists argue that these shifting circumstances, along with changes in religiosity and growing rates of single women, are reasons for women’s support for parties that advocate for welfare and left-wing social policies. This is similarly the case in Israel, where women are more supportive of welfare policies regardless of socioeconomic status.

At the same time, though, women in Israel have been found to have more hawkish military positions compared to men. They are less likely to support a Palestinian state and less likely to support withdrawal from West Bank settlements — both positions associated with a conservative national security policy. Explaining this political divergence, scholars argue that women are still more likely to vote for left-wing parties because they prioritize social issues over national security, whereas men focus more on national security issues.

A Palestinian citizen of Israel casts her vote in the Knesset elections at a polling station in the Palestinian town of Beit Safafa, on March 17, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A Palestinian citizen of Israel casts her vote in the Knesset elections at a polling station in the Palestinian town of Beit Safafa, on March 17, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Recognizing this difference, it is worth considering whether left and center-left parties have spent too much energy attempting to convince men voters that they are “tough” on security, while ignoring women voters who could be swayed by a strong social policy agenda. Indeed, since men do not prioritize socioeconomic issues, the current public health crisis in Israel seems unlikely to impact voter choice, which is to say that voting patterns in Israel will likely remain the same — to the detriment of women, minorities, and Israel as a whole. What would happen if parties instead invested resources in mobilizing lower income women who support their social welfare policies?

Group identity over gender identity

Women are more likely to support parties with women leaders compared to men, and the inclusion of women on party lists increases support from women (but not from men). This phenomenon extends to Palestinian citizens of Israel as well: more Palestinian women voted for Balad when the party placed Haneen Zoabi higher up on its list.

But are women more likely to vote for left-wing parties because they place women on their lists? This is clearly not the case: with the exception of the Joint List, most parties across the Israeli political spectrum have seen a decrease in women candidates.

Nearly a quarter of the parties in the Knesset — namely the religious Jewish parties — do not allow women on their lists, due to their belief that Jewish law requires men and women to have different social roles and to maintain modesty. Nonetheless, they still enjoy the support of some women voters, as women from marginalized groups tend to prioritize their group identity over their gender identity.

For example, a recent study on the gender voting gap among Palestinian citizens of Israel showed that there are no significant policy differences between men and women, which is further supported by the fact that Palestinian citizens overwhelmingly vote for Arab parties. Studies conducted in the United States similarly showed that Black women chose to support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic primary due to similar political calculations. This aspect of identity politics partly explains why ultra-Orthodox parties still enjoy support from ultra-Orthodox women despite not allowing women on their party lists.

This wide variation among women voters contributes to the inability to coalesce around clear and inclusive policy goals for gender equality in Israel. This is compounded by the fact that men’s voting patterns show they are less likely to support parties with socially progressive platforms and less likely to vote for women.

Relying on symbolic gestures

Rather than address these obstacles, Israeli center and center-left voters seem to be satisfied with mere performances of egalitarian attitudes. As a result, politicians are able to attend and express support for events organized by women’s social movements, like the “slut walk” against sexual violence or Women Wage Peace, but then marginalize women’s policy preferences in the legislature. These symbolic appeals to politically active women often serve to distract from the conservative and discriminatory policies implemented by politicians.

Former minister Gideon Sa’ar and his newly-established New Hope party are a clear example of this performative egalitarianism in the right-wing camp. Possibly impacted by his role as the only man to have served as the chairperson of the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality, Sa’ar has publicly committed to a “zipper system” to ensure gender parity by alternating between men and women candidates on his party’s list.

Notably, however, this specific commitment has not been accompanied by a comprehensive policy agenda on gender issues. Furthermore, Sa’ar has had few problems with serving in a coalition with parties that support gender segregation and other discriminatory policies.

Former Likud member Gideon Sa'ar speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Former Likud member Gideon Sa’ar speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Using women candidates as a strategic messaging tool may help alleviate concerns regarding Sa’ar’s record, but there is no evidence that women are actively included in decision-making or policy development in the New Hope party. As such, Sa’ar’s strategic priority is to differentiate himself from the predominantly right-wing candidate pool by appealing more to centrist men voters a common tactic right-wing politicians use to present themselves as more mainstream.

In the coming weeks, we will witness political parties run campaigns that make no significant effort to appeal to women voters nor to address their concerns. Despite the deeply gendered impact of the growing public health crisis, parties will largely present their contests in masculine terms of rationality and national security in an effort to mobilize men voters.

Most political parties think women should be grateful for any attention they get. Like Sa’ar, they rely on symbolic gestures with few or no policy proposals or grassroots efforts with women. In order for appeals to women voters to work, parties would have to invest more significantly in mobilizing and targeting women. At the moment, they are far too lazy and sexist to do so.