What will her opponents make of a dovish woman leader?

Tzipi Livni, the new leader of Kadima, Israel's ruling party, is close to joining that very select club of women heads of government. Ms Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister, if she becomes her nation's second woman prime minister, will face the day-to-day security dilemmas that are not on the agenda of the more numerous women leaders of Scandinavian or Antipodean countries.

It is not only the politically correct who will welcome a woman politician who climbs to the top of the greasy pole, particularly one without a dynasty like the Gandhi family or the Bhuttos to push her there. But gender cannot be ignored in discussing the challenges likely to come Ms Livni's way in the male-dominated and decidedly macho Middle East.

Being a woman is a fact of life. For Tzipi Livni as Israeli Prime Minister there will be opponents who want to make her sex a matter of life and death. Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran will note her dovish commitment to the peace process with the Palestinians, which they reject in any case. How will they test her inaugural comments? If they see them as a sign of weakness on Israel's part for choosing her as Prime Minister, will they respond with pressure for more concessions to prove her bona fides, or more violence to weaken her standing? How will she respond?

Women prime ministers have come under intense pressure from foreign enemies and domestic terrorists before now. Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir all rose to the top in even less female-friendly political environments than Israel today - though Ms Lipni certainly didn't lack rivals who, during the Kadima leadership campaign, publicly doubted her capacity to direct the Israeli Defence Force.

Even though Indira Gandhi owed her power base in the Congress Party to her father, Pandit Nehru, she survived so long in office only because she took hard decisions. In 1971 she defied the United States and China over the Bangladesh crisis when she invaded to halt a bloody civil war between an East Pakistani Army and a West Pakistani population. Whatever has gone wrong in Bangladesh since, it was not the wrong decision at the time.

When she decided to suppress the Sikh militants occupying the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Indira Gandhi knew she could be signing her own death warrant. She outraged peaceful Sikhs by sending troops into a shrine that even General Dyer had respected in the 1919 massacre, but she was convinced that allowing a terrorist haven there would spawn more trouble. She had the courage to keep her Sikh bodyguards afterwards, but it was foolhardy, as her assassination showed.

In politics, there are often situations without an answer. Every course of action will have negative effects weighing them in the balance; and getting the least bad result is what separates statesmen from the rest. But no one is infallible and being a woman in the moment of crisis can weigh on the female leader's mind as much as anyone else's.

In early autumn 1973 Israel's first woman Prime Minister, Golda Meir, faced a dilemma. Israeli intelligence said Syria was massing forces but Moshe Dayan, the Defence Minister and war hero, told her not to worry. The US advised against a pre-emptive attack like the 1967 Six-Day War. Then on Yom Kippur both Egypt and Syria caught the Israelis napping - and sent Meir into retirement for resisting her instinct to strike first. But she had thought if the one-eyed Dayan wasn't for it, how could she be more aggressive?

Even a pretty iron-willed lady such as Meir could let considerations of what “real” men on her own team thought influence her policymaking. However, politicians who follow hunches rather than expert advice soon go off the rails when their luck comes unstuck. Churchill's intuitions often let him down in war planning. Take the Dardanelles: right in theory but hopelessly impractical.

Margaret Thatcher's wars were small beer by comparison with Churchill's or even Tony Blair's but her approach was marked by the attention to detail and the lack of wishful thinking that bedevilled the operations of the other two. Call it good housekeeping if you like but, however risky the Falkands War was, Mrs Thatcher took the decision to send the task force only after admirals had assured her of the availability of forces for it. Taking a risk is not the same as a reckless gamble, as she recognised.

Both at home and abroad, Mrs Thatcher knew how to play both sides of her status as a woman prime minister. It gave her what Richard Nixon thought was a very important quality in a national leader - unpredictability. Precisely because a woman prime minister had broken the mould of domestic politics, foreign leaders would be wise to treat her with respect and make a cautious appraisal. Stereotyping a woman leader as either inherently dovish because of her sex or artificially hawkish despite her nature is primitive - but, worse, too often mistaken to be a guide for policy.

After all, it was the Iron Lady who saw the opening to better relations with the Soviet Union offered by Mikhail Gorbachev's arrival on the scene even before he took charge in the Kremlin. Mrs Thatcher could coo like a dove on occasion and it worked. It was a surprise burst of conciliation that came after her earlier tough line on the Soviet Union and hard-heartedness to the IRA hunger strikers and the miners.

As Hillary Clinton's “3am in the White House” attack ad showed, nowadays a woman can play the national security card against younger man with no military credentials. But Barack Obama of course won the primaries.

Tzipi Livni's 3am wake-up call is yet to come. When it does, her answer had better be indifferent to whether it is a gender-based bombshell or not.

Past form in lesser office - as admirers of Gordon Brown have found out - is no guide to performance as prime minister. With little data to play with, history suggests that self-confident women politicians are no more prone to error than men. Small comfort for those who want certainty in a dangerous world.

Mark Almond, lecturer in History at Oriel College, Oxford, and a visiting professor at Bilkent University, Ankara.