Gulf between Israel's female powerhouses highlights country's deepest tensions

A progressive feminist from the left went head-to-head with a hawkish Orthodox Jew from the right in a debate last night – and they had little in common beyond their gender.

Evan Bryant
Labor candidate Merav Michaeli (l.) and rising Likud star Tzipi Hotovely (r.) faced off for an election debate, on Jan. 15. Lahav Harkov (c.) of the Jerusalem Post moderated the debate, hosted by the Tel Aviv International Salon.

Sparks flew in Hangar 11 at Tel Aviv’s Old Port last night.

But this was no routine aircraft maintenance. Instead, the swank converted building was filled with young professionals for an election debate between two Israeli women who represent very different views of their country and its future.

On the left was social activist Merav Michaeli of the Labor party, casually dressed and sprawled out in her sofa-like chair. She advocates a social democratic state and peace with the Palestinians and espouses ardent feminist principles, including the abolition of marriage – an institution she says is limiting to women.

On the right, perched in front of a large banner of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was attorney Tzipi Hotovely – an Orthodox Jew in a modest dress with black lace fringe. She has become a rising star in Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party since being elected as the youngest-ever member of parliament four years ago.

Ms. Hotovely opposes a Palestinian state and warns that the social democratic policies Ms. Michaeli promotes would turn Israel into a Marxist-Leninist state like the Soviet Union – the native land of Hotovely's parents.

Michaeli and Hotovely’s competing visions for Israel illustrate some of the most fundamental tensions in Israel today: peace vs. security; secular vs. religious ideals; survival vs. international approval. But their arguments, together with the audience’s response, also illustrate the often surprising mix of principles in Israeli politics – making it impossible to pigeonhole candidates or voters, roughly a quarter of whom are still undecided.

That might help explain the fact that Hotovely at times received strong applause, despite speaking to mostly Anglophone immigrants in Israel’s most liberal city. But the resonance of her ideas also reflects Israel’s steady shift to the right in recent years.

‘You’re afraid your army will be more religious!’

One of the most contentious issues of the evening was Israel’s rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox community, which largely eschews army service and gainful employment in favor of religious study. Unlike Orthodox Jews, whose Hesder program of combined religious studies and army service has produced some of the most zealous soldiers, ultra-Orthodox have resisted increasing pressure to pull their weight in defending Israel.

With 50 percent of first graders now coming from either ultra-Orthodox or Arab families, in roughly a decade half of high school graduates will be exempted from serving in Israel’s army, Hotovely said – a trajectory that can't be allowed to continue.

“This is something that a country that still needs to fight for its existence can’t accept,” argued Hotovely, who repeatedly emphasized that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood.

Michaeli retorted: “She wants ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the army, which means women are going to be pushed aside even more than they are now in the army,” alluding to ultra-Orthodox taboos on men associating with women.

“This is the real reason why you don’t want them to be part of the army … because you’re afraid that your army will be more religious!” Hotovely shot back. “In my army, there is enough space for ultra-Orthodox people and for women to be F-16 pilots.”

Boosted by disillusionment

Perhaps no issue illustrates Israel’s shift to the right more than the declining support – and hope – for a Palestinian state. Today, 59 percent of Israeli Jews support a two-state solution, down from 70 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the percent of Israelis who support annexing the West Bank instead of allowing the Palestinians to create a state there has risen to 30 percent.

That may help explain why Hotovely’s ideas are gaining traction.

“We’re not against peace, we’re against illusions,” she said last night. “After realizing that the two-state solution is impossible, then you have to think of other options.”

She proposes annexing the West Bank, calculating that the 2 million Palestinians who live there – a low estimate compared to Palestinian statistics – combined with Israel’s 20 percent minority of Israeli Arabs would leave the expanded Israeli state with an Arab minority of 30 percent.

“I think this is something that we can handle,” she said. “We definitely can handle it more than a terror state next to us, as we saw what happened in Gaza,” she added, referring to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the coastal territory in 2005, where Hamas has since come to power.

Michaeli, whose party was long the champion of Israeli-Palestinian peace, predictably took issue with Hotovely’s plan. But it was not annexation that Michaeli mentioned. Instead, it was the prospect of an influx of Arabs into Israel, which was founded by Zionists who saw it as a unique and crucial refuge for a nation that had been persecuted for millenniums.

“This is not a Jewish state,” she said. “I mean, yes, we can do it, it’s a … binational state. Yes, it can be beautiful, I suppose…. But this is the end of Zionism as we know it.”

“Are you against the Arab population in Israel?” Hotovely shot back. Usually that’s a criticism pinned on the right.

“Not only am I against the Arab population in Israel, I am for equality for Arabs … something they are not getting under your government, that’s for sure,” retorted Michaeli.

No easy definition

Alex Grossman, a publicist for a hi-tech company who moved here from New York three years ago, isn’t planning to vote for Hotovely – he prefers Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party – but echoed some of her key points.

“People don't realize we're in a very volatile area,” he said, as attendees mingled before the debate started. “Look at what happened in Gaza. We gave it over to people we thought would be democratic. How can we have peace with these people? How can we give away any of the so-called West Bank area? We have to be very careful about who we give land to."

Netta Carmel, who works in marketing for the Israeli airline EL AL, said after the debate that she was impressed with both candidates, and thought both made valid points.

“Everybody wants a good future … I hate saying that there’s a right wing and a left wing and that’s it,” she said.

“I am more right-wing on the Palestinian issue, and more left-wing on economic issues,” she added, echoing Hotovely on the Gaza withdrawal. “I’m struggling to define myself, that’s why I have no idea who I’m going to vote for.”

Chelsea B. Sheasley contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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