JERUSALEM – For the first time since Golda Meir more than three decades ago, a woman is within reach of becoming the prime minister of Israel, a nation dominated by macho military men and a religious establishment with strict views on the role of women.
But unlike Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, Israel's Tzipi Livni doesn't talk about cracking glass ceilings, even as she leads the field in the ruling Kadima Party's Sept. 17 primary to choose the likely successor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Yet the tough-minded foreign minister's gender is popping up.
Top male rivals have branded Livni with words like "weak" and "that woman." And there is talk about ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers who might be kingmakers in the next government being uncomfortable with the idea of a female leader.
Livni hasn't commented about the gender issue, and adviser Gil Messing said the foreign minister would not agree to be interviewed on the subject, but others have complained about the allusions to her gender.
Former lawmaker Naomi Chazan says the jabs at Livni are built on "deep chauvinistic foundations."
"Livni, it is hinted, exhibits signs of weakness (or is it femininity?), and so is unworthy of taking over the reins of power," she wrote in an op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post.
The soft-spoken, 50-year-old Livni had a brief career in the Mossad spy agency. She traded that in for a life as corporate lawyer, wife and mother of two sons. Nine years ago she entered politics as a protege of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She has earned a reputation as a pragmatic straight talker who disdains backroom politics.
Her father, Eitan Livni, was a Zionist underground hero who battled the British in pre-state Palestine and thought Israel should expand its borders into Arab lands.
She initially shared that dream. But Livni eventually concluded it clashed irreconcilably with the reality of living among a fast-growing Palestinian population.
During her relatively short tenure in politics, she has held six Cabinet posts, including minister of foreign affairs, justice and immigrant absorption. As foreign minister and vice premier, she has led Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians on ending decades of conflict and establishing a Palestinian state.
Last year Time magazine included her in its list of the world's 100 most influential people, and she was No. 52 in Forbes magazine's recent ranking of the planet's 100 most powerful women.
But this resume apparently doesn't impress political rivals in a nation at war that values toughness over sensitivity.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister with an eye on his old job, recently played on an ad from Hillary Clinton's failed presidential bid that suggested rival Barack Obama was not the man to handle a 3 a.m. crisis call.
"The foreign minister, her background being what it is, is not cut out to make decisions, not at three in the morning and not at three in the afternoon," said Barak, who also served as commander of the military and is Israel's most-decorated soldier.
His comment was widely regarded in the media as veiled sexism, as was his pointed reference to Livni by her full name, Tzipora — Hebrew for "bird" and a name that aides say she despises.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief, is Livni's chief rival to become Kadima's new leader. His staffers have been quoted as saying Livni has a "a weak personality."
Some lawmakers dispute that Barak and Mofaz are being sexist.
"I am strong and you are weak" is part of Israel's political discourse, said Michael Eitan, a veteran lawmaker in a parliament that has only 17 women among its 120 members. Male candidates without security experience would also be criticized, he said.
During a recent appearance before foreign reporters in Jerusalem, Livni insisted she had plenty of security experience, including a key role as foreign minister during Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. That war has been the target of intense criticism in Israel, but Livni emerged largely unscathed because of her calls to end the fighting quickly.
There are also ultra-Orthodox parties to consider.
They could be crucial to Livni's efforts to form a new government, but are uneasy with a woman at the helm because "it's not modest" in their world view, said Menachem Friedman, an expert on religious society in Israel.
But Friedman, a professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, thinks practical politics would trump those concerns. The religious parties would join a Livni-led government if it promised them more money for pet causes and no territorial concessions to the Palestinians on Jerusalem, he said.
"If she gives them what they want, then they'll accept her," he said.
Spokesman Roi Lachmanovich of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, parliament's largest religious faction, said that "Shas has no problem with Tzipi Livni as prime minister of Israel."
For its part, the Israeli public appears to have little problem with having a woman leader.
Polls put Livni ahead of Mofaz in the Kadima primary and indicate she would fare better than him in a general election. She's also significantly ahead of Barak in national polls, though a general election race against her other key rival, hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would be tighter.
Back in 1969, Israel took the extraordinary step of choosing a woman as prime minister: Golda Meir. But in the four decades since, women have remained significantly underrepresented in Israel's government and business, though they have made strides in other areas.
Meir resigned in disgrace after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973. Israel repelled the attackers but took heavy casualties in a war that many Israelis still see as their country's most humiliating military episode.
Since then, no woman until Livni has come close to holding the reins of power. But her reputation for honesty, in a country where a series of high-ranking officials, including Olmert, have been convicted or accused of corruption, is an asset for Livni.
"She has a clean-hands image, and this is a time when we're looking for decent, honest people," Chazan told The Associated Press. "She meets this criterion, and it's very, very important."