To Israelis, all the fuss across the ocean about lipstick and pigs seems a little passé. Golda Meir, after all, cracked the Jewish state's glass ceiling some 35 years ago. For the past couple of years, Tzipi Livni, a former Mossad agent turned lawyer, has been running Israeli foreign policy. Now that she won her party's primary last week, she's poised to take over as premier. If she manages to cobble together a coalition, all three branches of Israel's government will be led by women: Dalia Itzik became Israel's first female Speaker of Parliament in 2006 and Dorit Beinisch heads the Supreme Court.
At first glance, the Jewish state's top political echelons might look like an egalitarian paradise—especially in the male-dominated Middle East. But the initial impression is misleading. "It's an optical illusion," says Israeli historian Tom Segev. "It doesn't really reflect any deeper change in the society." A rough-and-tumble frontier mentality has long shaped Israeli gender relations. "It's still a very macho society," says Segev. On average, only 8 percent of the seats in Middle Eastern parliaments are held by women, according to a recent U.N. report.
What about Golda? Though Meir is revered in the United States (she grew up in Milwaukee and Denver), she doesn't enjoy a particularly stellar reputation in the Levant. Among Israelis, Meir is often blamed for failing to avert the Yom Kippur war, which erupted in 1973. Candidates for high office tend to avoid comparisons to Israel's "Iron Lady," even if they respect her toughness. Livni, who was raised in a staunchly right-wing family, has said she didn't grow up with strong role models. "I certainly did not admire Golda," she told a local newspaper.
Israeli culture can also be slightly schizophrenic. Tel Aviv may tilt toward equal rights, but conservative Jerusalem is still heavily influenced by religious parties. Ultra-orthodox newspapers, which typically don't publish pictures of women, refuse even to print Livni's photograph. Livni, 50, would probably ordinarily laugh off the policy except that Haredi voters comprise a growing portion of the electorate, up to 15 percent. Livni will likely need to depend on the support of even small religious parties if she expects to form a governing coalition.
Even some of Israel's mainstream talking heads have been known to dismiss Livni with the kind of sexist cracks that would raise hackles in the United States. Labor Party head Ehud Barak snarkily refers to Livni by her full name—Tzipora—which means bird in Hebrew. One Israeli newspaper columnist, Sima Kadmon, wrote that Livni "lacked balls." Another dismissed her as "the prettiest girl in kindergarten." Just after Livni won the Kadima Party primary, Barak arranged to meet first with Benjamin Netanyahu—a maneuver that infuriated Livni's camp. "What they're doing is chauvinism," one Livni adviser griped to the Israeli Web site Ynet, adding that "two men are getting together in order to screw the meidele"—a Yiddish word for "young girl." For Golda Meir's successors, maybe that glass ceiling isn't entirely shattered just yet.