Middle Israel: National conclusions as municipal elections end

Netanyahu’s candidate lost his votes to other right-wingers. Bibi’s setback in Jerusalem, then, reflects no ideological shift among the voters.

November 3, 2018 00:58
Middle Israel: National conclusions as municipal elections end

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot for the parliamentary election as his son Yair stands behind him at a polling station in Jerusalem March 17, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS/SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL)


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‘There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets,” said New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, an insight that Israeli voters embraced in Tuesday’s local elections.

Unlike next week’s congressional elections, which are seen, rightly, as a statement about Donald Trump’s presidency, Israel’s local elections were the local affair they were meant to be, despite one delusional attempt to see in the results a blow to Likud’s political hegemony and a harbinger of its ideological demise.

Then again, on two other fronts this election actually did bear national messages: one was about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s human relations, the other about ultra-Orthodoxy’s place in the Jewish state.

THE IDEOLOGICAL mirage flickered in Haifa.

Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem’s upset of 15-year mayor Yona Yahav made Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay celebrate his candidate’s victory as an emblem of things much larger than the port city of 280,000. “This election’s meaning is that Netanyahu will not be Israel’s next prime minister,” he claimed.

That prophecy may or may not materialize, but for better or worse what happened in Haifa has nothing to do with Netanyahu.

Not one of nine Jewish mayors who headed Haifa since 1940 hailed from a right-wing background. That’s why it has long been called Red Haifa. That also goes for Yahav, who was a Labor MK in the 1990s before wandering through a succession of centrist parties, from Shinui through Kadima to Kulanu.

Yahav’s downfall is therefore not about the Likud era, but about voters’ alarm in the face of their city’s appalling environmental crisis, underscored by Israel’s highest cancer rates and pollution related deaths, caused by chemical waste and poisonous emissions from Haifa Bay’s heavy industries.

Haifa’s upset, then, was not about Bibi. Jerusalem’s vote, however, sure was.

In the capital Netanyahu had a horse in the race, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a confidant whose main message on billboards, buses, and social media emphasized the prime minister’s endorsement. Even so, hardly one in five voters was impressed.

Does this mean the Right is in for a beating in the approaching national election? It doesn’t; Netanyahu’s candidate lost his votes to other right-wingers. Bibi’s setback in Jerusalem, then, reflects no ideological shift among the voters. What it does reflect is Bibi’s failure to retain friends and control his coalition.

Moshe Lion, the first round’s winner and probably the next mayor, defeated Netanyahu’s candidate after having been himself Netanyahu’s protégé, first as his bureau chief in 1996, then as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

When and why Netanyahu lost Lion is unclear. What’s clear is that Lion was but one of many aides, confidants and allies Bibi has shed over the years, one way or another.

What began in his first premiership with the successive departures of defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, foreign minister David Levi, and finance minister Dan Meridor evolved in his subsequent governments to the departures of education minister Gideon Sa’ar, communications minister Moshe Kahlon and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.

In the interim Bibi also lost a chief of staff, one Naftali Bennett; a bureau chief, one Ayelet Shaked; a second director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office besides Lion, one Avigdor Lieberman; and most recently a third, Eli Groner.

Thousands realize all this, yet a critical mass still votes for Netanyahu, and that’s fair enough; maybe a man can lead a nation despite suffering from a serious social-skills problem. The problem is that these serial breakups produced multiple political parties that collectively created a systemic obstruction of Netanyahu’s own governance.

A prime minister with better social skills would not have had so many former allies rivaling him, each with his renegade party, and would therefore not have faced a defense minister who attacks his Gaza policy and a finance minister whose populism defies the prime minister’s economic convictions.

David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin never outsourced the defense and finance portfolios to coalition partners. Netanyahu, however, splintered his following and then became its splinters’ hostage. Now this political neglect spilled on, to Jerusalem’s mayoralty.

Still, this aspect of Tuesday’s election is a personal pattern that does not represent a social trend. What happened with ultra-Orthodoxy does.

THE SIGHT of yeshiva students in Haifa dancing in celebration of Kalisch Rotem’s victory was epiphanic.

It has been a decade since the ultra-Orthodox parties helped prevent Tzipi Livni’s appointment as acting prime minister, following Ehud Olmert’s resignation, due to her gender. Now United Torah Judaism actively backed a woman’s candidacy to head Israel’s third-largest city.

Cynics doubt UTJ leader Moshe Gafni’s claim that the choice was driven solely by alarm over the city’s health hazards, suspecting instead a secret deal for new ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Middle Israelis disagree; Gafni is one of the most honest politicians seen here.

Yet even if they had ulterior motives, ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ endorsement of a woman, and their stated concern for a nonreligious issue like pollution, prove that Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy is slowly but steadily becoming Israeli, as this writer has been arguing in recent years (see “The New Zionists,” The Jerusalem Report, 28 December 2015).

While ultra-Orthodox change in Haifa came from above, in Beit Shemesh it came from below.

Modern Orthodox educator Dr. Aliza Bloch’s defeat of ultra-Orthodox Mayor Moshe Abutbul was not one camp’s victory over the other, because as her rival himself conceded, she evidently received ultra-Orthodox votes as well.

Encouraged by the endorsement of Dr. Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of Shas founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, it was a voting by the feet. The voters told the ultra-Orthodox politicians who over the years turned Beit Shemesh into a religious-secular flashpoint that what they want is not acrimony but good schools, clean streets and social quiet, and that includes ultra-Orthodox voters, even if the candidate is a woman.

It is a heartening message anywhere, but especially so in Beit Shemesh, where our forebears once fought a gruesome civil war (Kings II, 14:11-13), and Bloch will now inspire peace.

Tuesday’s mayoral contests reflected Netanyahu’s failure to lead his own camp, and ultra-Orthodoxy’s profound transformation.

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