Analysis: Why Nir Barkat won the Jerusalem mayoral race

Despite failings in his opponent's campaign, perhaps Barkat himself should be given full credit for the victory.

Barkat at elecion party 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Barkat at elecion party 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Within hours of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s election victory Tuesday, news sites from Kentucky to Karachi were carrying wire stories with headlines proclaiming the race “a boost for Netanyahu.”
Putting a local race into perspective for readers around the world unfamiliar with the intricacies of our internal politics is important, and unlike Barkat, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is a household name abroad, which is integral for headlines. But with all due respect, the prime minister is hardly the reason Barkat won.
The Jerusalem race actually put Netanyahu in a difficult position that he would have preferred to avoid.
Because Moshe Lion was Likud Beytenu’s candidate, and Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s No. 2 in the joint national list, was Lion’s sponsor, the prime minister could not come out against him. But Barkat is Binyamin Netanyahu’s friend, shares his worldly philosophy, and named a highway exit after his late father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu.
Lion reportedly also upset Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, when the coalition talks he negotiated for Likud Beytenu made her nemesis, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, a powerful minister.
So Netanyahu made a point of saying nothing publicly about the race, making his preference for Barkat clear only by omission when he sent letters of support to every Likud mayoral candidate except Lion.
Some say the real reason Barkat won was Liberman, who together with Shas leader Arye Deri, scared voters away with their political maneuver that made a very nice but dry Givatayim accountant their candidate.
But Liberman proved his strength and his political ability by helping the previously unknown Lion win 45 percent of the vote.
Perhaps Barkat himself should be given full credit for the victory.
He has been credited with turning the city around and creating a positive atmosphere in the capital.
But his campaign was more negative about Lion than positive on his own accomplishments.
He only won by 6 percentage points – a result predicted exactly by Jerusalem Post pollster Rafi Smith. And a 36% voter turnout and his secular constituency’s apathy is hardly a badge of pride.
So why did Barkat emerge victorious? The answer – as usual in Jerusalem – has to do with the haredim.
Two days before the election, the rebbes of the Ger and Belz Hassidim told their followers to cast empty ballots for mayor while supporting their United Torah Judaism list for the city council. Mayoral candidate Haim Epstein, who represented a rebellious group of non-hassidic haredim, stayed in the race until the end.
There have been reports of political deals between Barkat and Epstein and promises of precious real estate to the two hassidic groups. Time will tell if those reports are true.
But there were legitimate reasons why the haredim did not vote en masse for Lion. First of all, Barkat never insulted the haredim, even after they appeared to betray him. Running an anti-haredi campaign is too easy and too foolish in a place like Jerusalem.
Barkat has battled over the past decade against the nonhassidic Lithuanian haredim, because they are trying to expand into secular neighborhoods.
Hassidim don’t do that, because they have to stay in walking distances to their yeshivas, where their rebbes hold inspiring gatherings called tisches on Friday nights.
Exploiting that distinction enabled Barkat’s haredi advisers to take votes away from Lion.
Meanwhile, the results for the city council indicate that Lion won very few votes away from Barkat’s secular constituency. His Likud Beytenu list won just one seat, just as it did five years ago when it had no mayoral candidate.
In a close race, the key is to beat the other candidate at his own game. Barkat did that, and Lion did not.
That is why Barkat won and will serve for the next five years, whether he ends up boosting Netanyahu or not.