Where are Israels political wives hiding

Very few Israelis could identify their country’s first lady in a police lineup, at a PTA meeting or anywhere else, for that matter.

While Israeli President Shimon Peres has been in the public eye for over 60 years, his wife, Sonya, by her own choice, has remained in the shadows. In fact, she apparently has no intention of leaving her Tel Aviv apartment to join her husband in the official presidential residence in Jerusalem.

Now the spouse of another prominent politician is following in Sonya’s footsteps. The lady is Tzippy Feiglin, the wife of rightist Moshe Feiglin, who has just lost a hard-fought contest with Bibi Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud. While Moshe was everywhere to be seen, she stayed at home.

Netanyahu’s wife appeared with him from time to time, but seldom opened her mouth, probably for fear she’d say something nonsensical, as had happened in the past.

This contrasts very strongly with the current American political campaign, where several of the candidates wives are almost as valuable as the candidates themselves. For example according to the Economist, former Sen. John Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, is virtually a co-candidate. “She weighs in on big policy decisions, and has encouraged her husband to speak from the heart rather than running a cautious, consultant-driven campaign,” the British magazine says.

The Economist cannot predict what any potential First Ladies might say should she set foot in the White House. It is sure, however, that “none would be content with just handing out the canapés.”

In at least one respect though, American women are only just catching up with their Israeli counterparts. Golda Meir was our prime minister decades ago, while only next year is there a possibility that the big boss in the White House will be a woman. Of course, Golda didn’t have a “first man,” having divorced her husband years before her election. In contrast, Hillary’s husband will be very much in evidence if and when they play “Hail to the Chief” for her.

There are a number of intelligent and forceful women in the upper levels of public life here. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is one of them. She feels that she is ready to be prime minister, but lacks a solid core of supporters.

A more forceful female figure is Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Benisch, who has made a name for herself by battling Minister of Justice Daniel Friedmann on the role of the Supreme Court. It now looks like Friedmann will be gone from the public eye much sooner than Benisch.

Not yet properly represented in high public office here are the two groups of ladies who have the most to complain about: Arab women and ultra-Orthodox women.

Women among the Bedouin are essentially the property of their fathers, who tend to have many daughters from many wives, even though bigamy is illegal in Israel. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women are not so subservient, except where matters of personal status are concerned. They can’t get a divorce without the approval of their husband, and he often tries to force his wife to abandon her property rights before he will agree to a divorce.

Perhaps only when Israel elects a second female prime minister will that change.

Nechemia Meyers is a freelance writer in Israel.