As a resident of Jerusalem, Mayor Nir Barkat’s supporters contacted me a few times on Tuesday to ensure that I had voted. Barkat correctly feared that low voter turnout could mean a victory for Moshe Lion.
After the elections, many bemoaned the low voting numbers throughout Israel, but Jerusalem’s, especially, should have been higher considering the contentious nature of the pre-election campaign in this city.
I heard Barkat’s supporters complain of the evils of indifference. Why didn’t more non-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jerusalemites support them? Did they not realize what could have happened? Perhaps the answer lies in Barkat’s own campaign.
Nir Barkat is a revelation. Besides his uber-successful pre-mayoral life, his first five years as the head of Jerusalem saw the city bring in massive amounts of investment and tourism, along with improved infrastructure and a cultural revolution. His campaign should have focused on these accomplishments.
Unfortunately, from the moment Moshe Lion declared his candidacy, the entire thrust of the mayor’s message turned negative. Too many of Barkat’s political ads included the words “Givatayim,” “Liberman” or “Deri.”
The most used word throughout the mayor’s campaign was “kombina.”
Too few of the ads trumpeted Barkat’s impressive accomplishments as mayor or attacked Lion’s vision for the city. No doubt when Barkat heard of Lion’s decision to run he consulted with PR experts or a marketing firm who, in the dark corners of their offices, spawned this strategy – make sure people constantly focus on who Lion is and not what he wants to do. The campaign turned into a battle of existence, and not essence.
Clearly, Barkat took the right approach if his goal was to win the election. The righteous indignation of his supporters was palpable. Lion didn’t even know which Jerusalem movie theaters were closed 10 years ago! Thus, the election turned away from issues of policy or experience to issues of identity. From the conversations I had with many Jerusalemites it became clear that they were unaware of Moshe Lion’s accomplishment or his plans for Jerusalem. They did not know that he served as the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, chairman of Israel Railways (actually, that one might have hurt more than helped) chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority.
While these do not ensure he would have been a better mayor than Barkat, they are extremely relevant to his ability to run a city. Would Barkat’s fans have been as disgusted with him if he were exactly the same person he is today, only from Givatayim? I seriously doubt it.
The negative campaign may have had a cost. After he won the election, Barkat said, “it was not an easy campaign, but the bottom line is that Jerusalemites gave us a mandate to lead Jerusalem for another five years.”
But did they really, Mr. Barkat? You won 51.11 percent of a vote that represented just under 38% of Jerusalem.
Even considering that many Arabs boycott the elections no matter what (although they came out to vote in relatively high numbers this time), receiving 20% of a city’s vote is hardly receiving a mandate.
Barkat’s own city council list actually lost two mandates.
Meanwhile, other secular parties, like Hitorerut, the Yerushalmim and Meretz, gained seats. They ran primarily on what they wanted to do for the city in the coming years (not to say that there was no negativity in their approach).
Great politicians are able to excite with their ideas. Bill Clinton’s speech at this year’s democratic primaries comes to mind in this regard. While he did address the faults of the Republican platform, he focused on what the Democrats could do with another victory, and on what they had already done. He lit a fire under what had been to that point a moribund Obama campaign.
In the recent Israeli elections, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid accomplished a similar feat. They brought a positive message and were rewarded with an amazing turnout from their supporters. Instead of taking this tack, Barkat spent the campaign acting shocked that anyone could possibly think of running against him.
Never mind that in other cities major parties had put up their candidates against established incumbents (Tel Aviv for instance) because that is normal in Israeli politics.
No, in Jerusalem,this could only be a conspiracy! While studying for my BA in America, a certain wellknown singer-songwriter put on a concert. She sold out the hall, but had trouble controlling the audience. Turns out that people in college just want to have a good time and are not as concerned with the artist. She desperately tried to shush the crowd and suggested that their behavior was rude. I would contend that it was the artist’s responsibility to make people interested enough in the music that they would want to listen.
In the end, the people responsible for getting voters to come to the polls are the politicians. They have to excite the voting public and make them hopeful about the future. Instead, these elections turned into an inane battle of pathetic accusations and banal advertisements.
The politicians should not receive all of the blame though. The people have a responsibility as well. If we respond negatively to this brand of cynical politics, instead of just ignoring it, then the PR companies will not recommend these tactics.
Citizens have a responsibility to follow politics and policy throughout the year, no matter how hard that may be. We must reject pointless accusations and phony, manipulated statistics. If we can do this then our candidates’ campaigns will stay on-topic and the best will rise to the top.
The writer is an MA student in International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and voted for Nir Barkat.