Sex has rarely been far from centre-stage in an otherwise low-key campaign for Israel's election on Tuesday. The fact that the ruling Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni is a woman has, however, been largely debated by allusion and suggestion, often in a far from gentlemanly way in the still macho world of Israeli politics. So it's striking then, in the campaign's final days, to see Livni herself, bidding to become the country's first woman leader since Golda Meir in the 1970s, putting the issue front and centre. Take a look at this poster, photographed in Jerusalem by my colleague Jerry Lampen. It reads, in French, "Tzipi Livni - Man of the Moment", or perhaps "The Right Man for the Job". It looks like a direct response to repeated attacks from right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu especially that "she" is not ready to lead a country facing threats on numerous fronts. "She's not up to the job," runs one ad from Netanyahu's Likud party. It shows Livni, slumped, with her head in her hands.
On Tuesday at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) we should know if Livni has been able to turn around Netanyahu's opinion poll lead. Even if she does, it is not guaranteed that she can form a coalition government. The reason this election is being held over a year early is because Livni, taking over from the corruption-hit Ehud Olmert, was unable to cobble together a workable coalition. As my colleague Jeffrey Heller had predicted when she took over her party's leadership, many believed the former soldiers running the other leading parties found it hard to accept her. Some saw the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join her cabinet as a reflection of religious sexism. That wasn't the official reason. But Livni, a secular denizen of liberal Tel Aviv, did go out of her way, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to appeal to religious tradition. She donned monochrome clothing and swapped her favoured pant suits for long skirts when meeting Shas leaders. Even so, the Orthodox press would not even print her picture. They would airbrush her out of group photos. Or, as for other women, they might photoshop her into "a tree, or something", one journalist at an ultra-Orthodox paper told my colleague Dan Williams.
Livni seems to have been reluctant to "play the woman card" early in the campaign, focusing on her record. But observers have detected a clear strategy to play the men at their own game. Both Netanyahu and Labour party leader Ehud Barak were commandos, Barak indeed is Israel's most decorated soldier. Livni has pushed her family credentials - her parents were famed guerrilla fighters against the British and Arabs in the 1940s - and her own shadowy past in the Mossad intelligence agency.
This TV ad showing a pixellated figure intones a list of career highlights down the years: "... he served in the Mossad ... he served as foreign minister..." and so on. "No one would doubt he could lead the government." Then the figure is revealed as Livni and the narrator says, "If only he wasn't... a woman." Hitting back at snide chauvinistic comments that, as a Mossad agent in Paris in the early 1980s she did only menial chores, Livni told an audience in Tel Aviv last week: "I make decisions, not coffee."