Israel is one of just a few countries that subjects its women to mandatory draft and has a female major-general sitting on the army's general staff. Until recently, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the head of the parliamentary opposition were both women.
From appearances, it would seem that women have a respectable role in Israeli establishment. But appearances can be misleading.
"Israel has the lowest representation of women out of any Western country in strategic leadership positions in the field of security and conflict resolution," says Julia Chazkel, the co-founder of the Israeli branch of Women in International Security (WIIS).
A dozen years ago, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325 calling on member states to increase the representation of women "at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict."
It also urged states to include women as special envoys, participants in peace negotiations and in military peacekeeping operations. Israel adopted this into law over a decade ago, but has yet to fulfill any of the requirements under the resolution, Chazkel told The Media Line.
"There are very few women who are in the strategic positions that they said they were going to. There is yet to be a woman who is on the front lines of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This is a promise that they have been making for over 10 years that hasn't been fulfilled," says Chazkel.
Chazkel founded the Israeli chapter of WIIS in September 2010 with Lea Landman with the declared aim of boosting the influence of women in foreign and defense affairs in Israel and the Middle East. They were teaming up with the mother organization sitting in Washington DC, which was established in 1987 and today boasts some 5,000 members in nearly 50 countries.
Chazkel comes from a background in counter-terrorism analysis and international law. Landman, a former Israel Air Force intelligence officer, is a research fellow on national security and economic affairs at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC).
To its credit, Israel is one of a handful of countries where women have served as prime minister. Golda Meir did so during the tumultuous 1973 Yom Kippur War. Until last month, the head of Kadima, the largest political party in Israel, was Tzipi Livni, a former Mossad agent and foreign minister under the government of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Livni lost out in a leadership contest in March to her rival, former army Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
But Meir and Livni are the exception. In its 64-year history, only 10 women have served as ministers, (including Meir and Livni) and there are currently three female ministers out of Binyamin Netanyahu's unprecedentedly large 29-member Cabinet. These include Minister of Agriculture Orit Noked, Minister of Immigration Absorption Sofa Landver and Minister of Sport and Culture Limor Livnat.
Ironically, one of the major leaders in last summer's social protests by huge swaths of Israel's middle class was a Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old videographer.
Based at IDC, the WIIS helps students and young professionals prepare their resumes and hone their interviewing skills. They also hold monthly lectures on security, women's rights and conflict resolution.
Chazkel said the group has three main target groups: students, mid-level career women and women in senior positions. Students are given mentors and help in career opportunities and linked in to entry-level job opportunities in the security sector.
With women at mid-level careers, Chazkel said they help them earn promotions by various training.
"These training programs fit perfectly in institutional barriers in the places that they already work to help them achieve higher and reach leadership positions in the security sector," she said, but did not elaborate.
"And then we work with networking opportunities for women at the highest levels to get them to know each other and to really build an All Girls Club and counter the All Boys Club," Chazkel said.
"We are doing major research to find out what are the institutional barriers. I think a lot of them have to do with sexual harassment, feelings of a lack of role models - which is why we think the mentoring opportunities are the most important thing, so that women that are coming into the field know that there is someone there to help them," she said.
Politics and the defense establishment are male-dominated. There were those who saw the option to changing this by presenting an alternative. In Israel, there are today more than 50 registered women's organizations, the majority of which are devoted to providing solutions, such as preschool daycare, assistance to single mothers, and legal counseling, to the problems women face. Others are focused on issues such as peace, security, and social welfare, such as The Women in Black, Rachelim Women and Four Mothers.
Interestingly enough, public opinion surveys usually show no differences between the views of Israeli men and women on issues related to peacemaking.
"Women don't necessarily think differently than men when it comes to peace negotiations and security, but the perception of women is that we do," said Chazkel.
According to a dissertation written by Fania Oz-Salzberger, who now teaches at the University of Haifa, Palestinians were more willing to accept women on their peace negotiating teams than Israelis.
"This isn't necessarily because women are more inclined to peace, but rather because the perception of us is that we are," Chazkel says. "So I personally believe, and believe strongly, that these are reasons that we need to put women into strategic positions. Because we have a unique thing that we bring to the table and we have something that adds to the table and it's important to bring women into strategic positions."
Chazkel believes that Israel is progressing, albeit slowly.
"If we want to continue progressing ourselves as a Western society that's moving toward democratic, and equal opportunities, we need to make sure we represent ourselves at the level the Europeans are and the level that the Americans are. So, in order to do that, we need to make sure there are more women in leadership positions — because that's the future," Chazkel said.
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