Not-so candid candidates?

The next mayoral and city council elections are due to be held in November 2013, but the rumor mill, the ad hoc coalitions and the political horse-trading are already in full swing.

Nir Barkat east jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
Nir Barkat east jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
At the end of his 45-minute speech last Friday to a small but attentive audience made up of the residents of Beit Moses, a retirement home in Baka, MK Ze’ev Bielski (Kadima) seemed satisfied, and perhaps even relieved. After all, he had managed to hold their politely focused attention without saying anything dramatic or revealing what his future political plans were. Bielski has no chance of being reelected to the Kadima party – as he himself is the first to admit – and missed his opportunity to join Likud before that party merged with Yisrael Beytenu.
Like Bielski, many other MKs now trying to flee the sinking Kadima ship to Likud are finding the way blocked.
That didn’t prevent him, however, from emphasizing during his speech his long-time friendship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In fact, remarked some of the attendees, Bielski sounded more like a member of Likud than of Kadima. To add to the confusion, Bielski’s speech was organized by and under the patronage of Zvika Chernichovski, former directorgeneral of the Jerusalem Association for Community Councils and Centers and, no less importantly, the head of an initiative to replace Mayor Nir Barkat.
THE NEXT mayoral and city council elections are due to be held in November 2013, but the rumor mill, the ad hoc coalitions and the political horse-trading are already in full swing, albeit behind the scenes. The list of candidates who might be able to challenge the incumbent Barkat gains a new name on an almost weekly basis, but one thing seems to remain the same: Most of the candidates consider the mayoralty to be “plan B” should they fail to gain a seat in the country’s Knesset elections (scheduled for January 22).
Bielski definitely falls into this category, and he is not alone. Here are some of the names that have been (quietly) bandied about these past few weeks: MK Nachman Shai (formerly of Kadima, moved recently to Labor); MK Dalia Itzik, also from Kadima; outgoing Habayit Hayehudi MK Zevulun Orlev; Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin; and Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism (UTJ), who lost four years ago to Barkat.
The list of potential candidates who are not currently MKs is no shorter. It includes Aryeh Deri, Prof. Yonatan Halevy (director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center) and former mayor Uri Lupolianski, who in discreet polls conducted by haredi leaders seems to have wide support. Besides these, Meretz city council leader and Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalu officially admitted a few weeks ago that he was working on finding a serious alternative to Barkat, and added that he wouldn’t automatically reject a haredi candidate, as long as he did not share Barkat’s right-wing positions.
WHILE THOSE acting behind the scenes busy themselves with trying to find the best candidate to replace Barkat, there is at least one person at Safra Square (besides the mayor ) who can barely repress a smile.
Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus says he hasn’t been so amused for a long time. Pindrus knows he represents about one-third of the city’s population (less, if the Mizrahi haredim of Shas are not included). As a result, he and the rabbis to whom he reports know that their community’s vote will be very important.
“We are not in anybody’s pocket,” has been his only declaration. “We conduct polls, and we check who, from among all the realistic candidates, has a chance of being elected, and out of these we of course check who is the best for our community. That’s all. Not too much emotion is invested here,” he says.
And what about the alliance with the present mayor? Pindrus prefers not to elaborate, simply saying that his duty, as the representative of his community, is to find the best candidate to represent that community.
Asked whether that includes him, as intimated by those close to him, Pindrus reiterates that all the options are open. “Our sole objective is to support the best candidate for our community’s needs. Until then, we are not to be taken for granted by anyone.”
SO WHO are the realistic candidates? Although Halevy has repeatedly denied his candidacy, he keeps popping up in every campaign.
“There are some names that always appear,” admits Deputy Mayor David Hadari, head of Habayit Hayehudi’s list on the city council. “MK Zevulun Orlev has also been mentioned a few times, and it doesn’t help that Orlev, time and again, denies that he is considering it.”
In a phone conversation earlier this week, Orlev confirmed that his name had been mentioned a few times and also confirmed that he was not considering running.
“I said it loud and clear: I am quitting political life. But people – and journalists especially – find it hard to believe. What can I do?” Orlev, who does not appear on his party’s Knesset list, admits that leading Jerusalem is a major task but insists that “I’m done with the political scene. I’m going to rest, to do things. I still don’t know exactly what, but I will not be involved in any political activities. I’m serious about that.”
Bielski refuses to say anything one way or the other regarding his candidacy for mayor, but his answers to this reporter’s inquiries at the end of his speech at Beit Moses didn’t sound as clear cut as Orlev’s.
“Let’s wait until the [Knesset] elections, and then we’ll see,” he said. “Everything depends on the January 22 results. After that, things will become clearer.”
Asked how he was planning to continue his efforts to find a candidate able to challenge Barkat when his attention was still committed elsewhere, Chernichovski admitted that things were not going the way he expected when he launched his forum.
“We understand that the reality has changed with these [Knesset] elections,” he tried to explain, “so we are keeping a low profile for a while. When the elections are over, we’ll get back to our activities with all the energy necessary. I haven’t given up my plan to replace Barkat.”
Asked how he has taken MK Shai’s decision to renounce his candidacy for mayor after finally finding his place in the Labor Party, Chernichovski said he remained optimistic.
“We are acting very discreetly these days. We do not want to ruin the plans of potential candidates, so we’re waiting until after the general elections. There is no other way, but we’re here; we haven’t given up.”
BACK TO Pindrus and the haredi position. In that regard, things look quite complicated, at least from the outside. While Pindrus himself is keeping an unusually low profile and agrees only to admit that his party is conducting polls, sources around him are more willing to talk, as long as they are not identified.
The UTJ party is made up of two main elements – the Lithuanians and the hassidim. These two groups observe a strict partition, based on a rotation of power within the party, which is sometimes taken to absurd levels. For example, they supported MK Meir Porush’s candidacy in 2008, which didn’t seem promising in the polls, instead of changing the internal agreement and allowing Lupolianski – who obviously had better chances – to run again.
The results are known. Porush lost, but now the wheel has turned again, and the haredi Ashkenazi candidate – if there is one – will come from the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah faction (represented by Pindrus) and not from the hassidic benches, represented by councillor Yossi Deitsch, despite the fact that Deitsch, not Pindrus, is the head of the haredi party on the city council.
The problem is that these details are not always clear to non-haredi politicians and their representatives.
And so, says a haredi source, “Everything based on the wishes or plans of the hassidim remains on the level of wishful thinking and doesn’t have any chance of being fulfilled, but some people out there refuse to understand.”
The source was hinting at the rumor, circulating for the past few weeks at Safra Square, that an agreement between UTJ and Barkat was close to being reached, giving the mayor full support in exchange for some concessions to the haredim.
“So far,” insists the source, “there is no such agreement, not even in the planning stages.”
This answer reflects the deep lack of confidence between the haredim and Barkat, something the public might find surprising, considering the number of concessions that community has received under Barkat.
“That is absolutely not true,” says the source, who goes on to explain that among the haredi community there is growing dissatisfaction about the municipal administration’s lack of support.
“The haredi community does not receive the minimum of services. What do we care about all these cultural events going on endlessly? We don’t attend them, anyway,” says the source.
As a result, confirms the source, the chances that the haredim will support Barkat’s candidacy and not enter a candidate of their own are, at least for now, quite slim. In that regard, the reappearance of Lupolianski’s name is quite interesting.
Lupolianski himself isn’t talking, and for the moment his public status is not clear. A cloud still hangs over him due to the Holyland affair, but among the Lithuanians in haredi political circles, many believe that Lupolianski won’t be found guilty and thus should be able to run.
“I don’t think they seriously expect that the trial will clear Lupolianski’s name early enough for the elections,” says city councillor and head of the opposition on the city council Meir Turgeman. “I am sure they have somebody else in mind, and they’re using Lupolianski’s name to keep a low profile until it’s the appropriate time to reveal their real candidate.”
And who would that be? “I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he won’t be haredi,” he says.
“They have understood by now that a haredi mayor doesn’t serve their interests. They are still nostalgic for the Ehud Olmert era, which allowed them to grow and obtain almost all their requests.”
UTJ’s closest benches are those of Shas. In different times, these two parties would have formed some kind of ad hoc coalition, but the situation at the moment will not allow for such a thing.
“In fact,” admits Shlomi Atias, former Shas deputy mayor and current director of the Jewish Quarter Development Company, “today, Shas has almost been eradicated from the arena of municipal affairs.”
The facts are known. Shas’s leader on the city council, Eli Simhayoff, who is also implicated in the Holyland affair, has been relieved of all his duties on the city council. He still holds the title of deputy mayor, but Barkat doesn’t even allow him to attend the municipal board meetings (which are not the city council monthly meeting, which are open to the public).
Simhayoff, who continues to claim his innocence, recently revealed that he might consider running for mayor of Betar Illit and publicly announced that he has no official position on Jerusalem’s city council. Whether this is true or not, that puts Shas, once a very powerful party, in a very weak position.
But Shas has another asset: Aryeh Deri. Officially, Deri is the first in a triumvirate that includes Eli Yishai and Ariel Attias at the head of the national party, but the reality is that so far, nothing is settled. Yishai is fighting hard to protect his position, and Attias’s allegiance is still not clear, so Deri can’t be discounted as a possible contender for the Jerusalem mayoralty.
But following the decision of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to put Eli Yishai at the helm while allowing Deri to pull the strings, it seems that at least for now, Deri has become another potential challenge to Barkat that is fading away.
AND WHAT about the national religious? Hadari says that for the moment, his party is not considering running a candidate of its own – unless, of course, Orlev changes his mind. Hadari admits that he would have loved to have a candidate for his constituency, be it Orlev or someone else.
But he does not try to hide his deep dissatisfaction with Barkat.
“On the really important issues, I would barely give Barkat a B-minus. I’m not saying that things haven’t been done better than before this term, but we expected more on the most important issues. I’m talking about issues that matter for the national religious population, that could make them feel good here. That has not been achieved,” he says.
Hadari was busy last week promoting a change in the city’s decision not to approve the construction of a mikve (ritual bath) in Givat Masua. The move was conducted by the local community council, but Hadari considers Barkat to be mainly responsible.
“How can we put our trust in a mayor that allows this situation? Six hundred women, residents of that neighborhood, have signed a petition to get a mikve built there. What? They are not important enough? Or are we considered as taken for granted?” he says.
As a result, he adds, the official position of Habayit Hayehudi is a refusal to grant support – at least for the moment – for Barkat’s candidacy. “We shall support any candidate that will ensure that Jerusalem will remain a Jewish and Zionist city, that it will be a city in which religious Zionists feel at home,” he says, adding that “Of course, it should be a city in which the secular also feel good and wanted, and anyone living here – the secular, of course, but the religious, too. Let’s not forget that.”
One-third of Jerusalem’s residents are defined as secular, traditional or national religious. Many of them used to be represented by the Likud, which still has its largest branch in Jerusalem. But Likud hasn’t been interested in running a candidate for mayor, and neither has Labor or Kadima. Meretz, which traditionally has three seats on the city council, could have been the leading power to support a secular candidate. Unfortunately for them, the only serious secular candidate so far has been Barkat, who doesn’t share the party’s left-wing political views, to put it mildly.
So the Meretz members are perplexed. Should they support the candidate who has opened quite a lot of cultural venues on Shabbat and restored the city’s vibrant cultural life? Or should they reject him and find another candidate who would be secular and left wing? Their last chance, Erel Margalit, faded away last week, as he won a realistic position on the Labor Party list. But they have not lost hope.
“We must find an appropriate candidate,” says Allalu. “It could even be a haredi, as long as he would be ready to understand that the secular also have rights here, and especially that he will not promote the settlers’ interests over the Arab population and their rights.”