Both men are respected, hard-working mayors of cities whose quality of life has noticeably improved under their leadership. Each had successful careers before entering politics and sees his current work as self-sacrifice for the good of his neighbors. Both took the lessons they learned in their former careers and applied them successfully to run their cities according to their vision.
Both men are working hard behind the scenes on the national party level, just in case the right circumstances will be in place to enable them to become prime minister. And both men are smart enough to deceive their constituents and deny that they are actively working on an effort to leave them behind in favor of a bigger show.
The comparisons between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and his Tel Aviv counterpart, Ron Huldai, end there. The contrasts are more obvious.
Barkat, 55, is a wealthy, hi-tech businessman. Huldai, who turned 71 on Wednesday, is a veteran fighter pilot and educator.
One is a moderate right-winger from a relatively right-wing, religious city that is enjoying somewhat of a secular renaissance, in part because of him. The other is a left-winger from a relatively left-wing, secular city that has a young, growing community of modern-Orthodox immigrant singles from English-speaking countries – a phenomenon that he has encouraged.
Could these mayors who have so much in common and so much that sets them apart face off in the next election for prime minister? If they do, it could be a fascinating contest.
Tel Aviv vs Jerusalem. Hapoel against Beitar. Thongs vs shtreimels. The beach against the Western Wall. Shenkin Street vs “Shabbes! Shabbes!” There has been speculation for months in Labor that if anyone could run against Labor incumbent Isaac Herzog and pose a serious threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is Huldai. Huldai has not yet decided whether to run. But as soon as Herzog sets a date for the race, he will have to announce whether he will enter the fray.
Labor has been successful over the past four decades only when it ran candidates for prime minister who were seen as security experts. One major liability that Labor had in the last election was that it was perceived as weak on security.
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The party’s commercials played up Herzog’s experience in the IDF’s signals intelligence unit, 8200. But no one seemed to buy it.
Herzog had the right to bring a serious former general onto the party’s list but chose not to. Instead, Labor pretended that former OC intelligence Amos Yadlin was its candidate for defense minister, even though he did not run for Knesset.
Huldai’s experience as a pilot in battle could be used by Labor in the political battles that lie ahead. He could have much more credibility when he attacks Netanyahu on security issues than Herzog did this week on the occasion of the government’s 100th day.
But meanwhile, Huldai has to overcome a couple of challenges as mayor that could preempt his rise to the national level. First of all, he must do everything possible to prevent more African migrant workers from coming to Tel Aviv and harming the city’s economy and security.
Huldai told Army Radio Wednesday that he was unsatisfied with Interior Minister Silvan Shalom’s decision that migrants released from the Holot detention facility would not be permitted to go to Tel Aviv. He said there were no provisions in place to stop them from coming and that the government lacked a coherent policy on the issue.
Another major challenge for Huldai on the local level is the major Tel Aviv Light Rail construction project that threatens to keep his residents in perpetual traffic. The problem is expected to get much worse in the coming week, when children get back to school.
The project was initiated by the Transportation Ministry and its efficient minister, Israel Katz. But mayors tend to bear the brunt of criticism for traffic problems that are not their fault.
A final potential liability for Huldai is his age. Septuagenarian politicians are respected in Israel, much more so than in other Western countries. But if a party wants to attract young people, the old mayor who evicted socioeconomic protesters from the streets in 2011 might not be the man who can reach out to them in a battle for votes with charismatic Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
This week it was revealed that Barkat, like Huldai, was getting his feet wet on the national level. Barkat denied a report on Channel 10 Monday night that he was working hard to bring thousands of supporters into the Likud in order to build a camp in the ruling party.
But a veteran Likud MK who is strong in the central committee and has nothing against Barkat confirmed the report. And Barkat himself said in an interview with Yediot Aharonot that it is important for him to have a lot of power in the Likud.
Like Huldai, Barkat must first overcome serious challenges on a local level, before he can run an effective campaign on the national level.
The first problem is, of course, security. Barkat served in the Paratroop Brigade for six years and gained attention in February when he subdued a Palestinian terrorist who was trying to stab a Jewish victim. But there have been dozens of attacks in the city in recent weeks and hundreds over the past year. Stopping the attacks and restoring calm to the city is the responsibility of the IDF and police, not the mayor, but Barkat will be blamed anyway if the terrorism persists.
Another major challenge for Barkat on the local level is the tense status quo in Jerusalem on matters of religion and state. If Barkat is perceived as overly pandering to the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) in the city, it could cause him major political damage.
There are more cultural options for secular residents in Jerusalem than there ever were before. To compete in the future on a national level, Barkat needs to be careful not to be perceived as too much of a secularist in a city with a delicate balance.
A final problem for Barkat is that the Likud is not an easy party for those perceived as outsiders. Barkat was initially apolitical and he was briefly in Kadima. Likud activists never forgave former Kadima MKs Tzachi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter.
There already are many potential future contenders for the Likud leadership, who are waiting for the post-Netanyahu era which could still be years away. He will have to fight off the likes of Moshe Ya’alon, Gilad Erdan and Silvan Shalom from inside the Likud faction, Gideon Sa’ar and Danny Danon from outside, and potentially Moshe Kahlon, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman from other parties.
Neither Huldai nor Barkat would risk their reputation to run, unless they were sure they would win. That means that if former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi runs against Herzog, Huldai would likely stay out.
Barkat could run for the next Knesset under Netanyahu’s wing and seek to replace the prime minister if he leaves office, but he would not be foolish enough to run against him.
A face-off of mayors remains unlikely, but it has become more possible. Whoever would win would be the talk of the town.
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