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Women Gain Influence in Israeli Politics After Many Years

Israeli legislator Orly Levy-Abeksis (l) campaigns at a shopping mall in the town of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2015.

For decades, the prototype for a top Israeli politician has been a tough-talking man with a decorated military past who's big on security. Now, however, women are filling senior positions in parties across the spectrum, and they are influencing the style, tone and manner of Israeli politics.

Opinion polls suggest up to 30 women — including a 29-year-old former protest leader and a 49-year-old retired brigadier general — will be elected to the 120-seat Knesset when Israelis vote March 17. If that proves to be the case, Israel will have a higher percentage of female legislators than the United States does, while remaining in the middle of the pack internationally.

Golda Meir rose to become the country's first female prime minister in 1969, a decade before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain.

Meir met the requirement to be tough on security; David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, is said to have described her as the only man in his cabinet, and she later led the country through the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

But in the past four decades no woman has reached the top in a country where military experience is prized, although former spy agency operative Tzipi Livni has played a leading role for a decade and may yet make it to the prime minister's office.

One of the most prominent of the latest generation of women in politics is Orly Levy-Abeksis, number two on the candidate list for Yisrael Beitenu, a far-right nationalist party that is expected to win five or six seats in parliament.

The backer of 26 bills during her six years in the Knesset, Levy-Abeksis is one of the most active legislators. But some of her experiences reflect those of women in many countries trying to make their way in their chosen career.

'Men are treated so differently'

A mother of four children, and an attorney who put herself through law school by modeling, she said she felt that women in Israeli politics tend to be taken less seriously than men and had to overcome more obstacles.

"Men are treated so differently. It's irritating," said the 41-year-old, whose father, David Levy, is a former foreign minister. "I'd like to see as many women as representatives as possible. Most of the social activists and volunteers are women, anyway."

The most prominent female politician with a senior military background is Miri Regev, 49, a former brigadier general who was chief spokeswoman and censor for the Israeli military.

At number five on the party list for Likud, the right-wing party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Regev is set to get a senior cabinet post if the party wins the election.

"I'm clear and blunt and make no apologies for it," Regev said of her style of politics, which has made her a strong performer in TV debates. "I'm not one of those distant, jaded politicians," she said, adding that female politicians "shouldn't have to hide behind any male voices."

Tal Schneider, a political blogger, said compulsory military service has often given men an advantage in building political careers.

While women serve too, they tend to do administrative jobs. Men in combat units frequently rise up the ranks more quickly, bolstering their image as enforcers of national security.

"As a result, women are often left seated on the sidelines," said Schneider.

Ultra-Orthodox parties

Another hurdle is that Israel has many ultra-Orthodox religious parties that ban women from running for office. They account for around 15 percent of parliament, making it even harder for Israel to redress the gender balance.

Israel's best-known woman politician internationally is Livni, a former justice minister and peace negotiator who once worked for the Mossad intelligence agency.

Livni, 56, is co-head of the center-left Zionist Union, which is opening a lead in opinion polls. If the alliance wins the election and forms a coalition, Livni is slated to rotate the prime ministership with Labor's Isaac Herzog, who will serve first.

On the left is Stav Shaffir, 29, who became the youngest woman to serve in the Knesset in 2013. A former leader of social reform protests that shook Tel Aviv in 2011, Shaffir continues to campaign for more housing and relief from the high cost of living in Israel.

A member of parliament's finance committee, she has been outspoken on such issues as the amount the government spends on building settlements on occupied land.

At fourth on the Zionist Union list, Shaffir is almost guaranteed a cabinet position if the alliance forms a government. It's a long way from social protester to cabinet minister in just four years, and she knows it.

"I came to understand that if we, the younger generation, don't go into politics and create change for ourselves, nobody is going to do it for us," she said.