Not the winner, but a formidable contender

The day started out hopeful for Moshe Lion, but soon after midnight, the mood changed.

Moshe Lion visits Kiryat Moshe 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Moshe Lion visits Kiryat Moshe 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Around 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the smiles on the faces of activists and supporters of Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion began to freeze, and slowly, slowly, to disappear. They were replaced by expressions of concern, hesitation and even some anger.
The large hall rented for the occasion at the city’s Ramada Hotel was packed with hundreds of haredim of all ages and many residents from the former Soviet Union, with a few olim from Ethiopia sprinkled in along with many activists from the capital’s less privileged neighborhoods – an unusual mix. The atmosphere moved from high-spirited and cheerful to a sad frustration. The victory they felt was so close during the past few weeks was beginning to fade away.
Elkana, a young haredi supporter, seemed about to burst into tears, saying, “It’s impossible. What about all of those who voted for us?” Throughout, Likud Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman walked around nervously, glued to one of the two cellphones he held.
But let’s take a look at the hours that preceded the official announcements of both the victorious and the losing factions.
AT 8:37 A.M., Levana and Malka, two Jerusalemites in their mid-60s from the Talpiot neighborhood, made their way to the local polls, proudly aware of being early to fulfill their civic obligation. The school, cleared of pupils for election day, was almost empty at that hour.
In fact, there were many more activists than voters, ready to persuade every resident to vote for their list or their mayoral candidate. Hanan Rubin, No. 2 on the Hitorerut list, wearing the yellow T-shirt of his movement and surrounded by a few young supporters with flyers, said this was reasonable, as it was still early.
Later, it appeared that what could perhaps seem normal before 9 a.m. was in fact a forecast for the rest of the day.
With a paltry 37 percent of voters participating, the message was clear: Jerusalemites weren’t bothering too much with these elections.
At Lion’s local polling spot at the Beit Hahinuch High School, a small group of youths wearing T-shirts with his slogan (“The residents before anything else”) sang their support, backed by a mobile amplifier playing high-volume Mizrahi music, to the protest of the team representing incumbent candidate Nir Barkat.
Responding to the two groups – about the same age, freshly graduated from high school – the school’s guard remarked on an unattended blue knapsack lying in a corner, waving away the groups and calling the police.
Exiled to the other side of the street, the two factions continued to sing and rile each other up, paying very little attention to the knapsack drama, while photographers and reporters began to gather around.
The bag’s owner was located (it belonged to one of the reporters) and the two groups soon reoccupied the sidewalk at the entrance to the school.
“They don’t hesitate to use any trick to disturb us!” cried a middle-aged woman standing among a group of adult supporters of Lion, hinting that the forgotten bag was probably a trick of the candidate’s opponents. “We will win anyway,” she declared to no one in particular, turning her back on Barkat’s supporters.
AT 10:20 A.M., after an almost one-hour delay, Lion finally arrived and got out of his car, accompanied for the first time in his campaign by his wife. Waving and smiling at the public, he missed the entrance to the school and had to backtrack a few meters.
Taking part in a photo-op, he cast his ballot, and with a warm smile on his face, promised, to applause, “a sweet victory, which will soon enable us to do what we promised – to put the interests of the residents before everything else.”
Asked about her feelings when she stepped behind the partition to cast her vote, Lion’s wife, Stavit, smiled and said, “I am so happy to be here. I feel wonderful today!” From Beit Hahinuch, Lion continued to visit a few polling stations, where he again met with supporters, and promised that victory was near.
11:30 A.M., KATAMON and the German Colony: Life here continued as usual – the coffee shops were full and nobody seemed to be in a rush to go anywhere, including to the polls.
Two women in their 30s stood on the sidewalk on Emek Refaim Street, consulting a third person on the phone. “What do you say, should we go vote now or have a coffee first and wait until you join us?” the two asked their friend. “Ayala says to wait for her at the coffee shop and go vote in the afternoon, there’s plenty of time,” they decided. Courageously, I asked the two if they weren’t afraid they might not make it over to vote after. “Personally I would prefer to vote first, but taking the time for a morning coffee with my friends is also important. The polls are open until 10 p.m., there’s plenty of time,” one of the woman said with a smile.
I thought to myself that if many acted the same way, the polling stations would be empty most of the day, and packed for the last two hours. Along this main street of the German Colony, despite the fact that the municipal elections were on a working day, the atmosphere very much resembled a Friday morning – the closest thing to a morning of leisure. A few calls to supervisors at polling stations in the city center and the German Colony and Katamon neighborhoods confirm the picture – most were empty, with just one or two voters here and there, mostly seniors.
12 NOON ON Baka’s Beit Lehem Road: It was the same picture here. The terraces at coffee shops were full, the weather was great and the atmosphere was of a day of vacation. Here and there, cars – once even a truck – covered with signs of the candidates or the city council lists patrolled the street, with loudspeakers inviting residents to fulfill their civic responsibility and go vote.
The most impressive reaction was the total indifference with which these efforts by almost all the candidates were met. “There’s plenty of time” was a sentence heard time and again.
3 P.M., CITY CENTER, Ben-Yehuda Street on the corner of King George Avenue: A visitor from another planet would have had some difficulty understanding this was an election day. The real “king” of the day was shopping – and coffee shops, of course. At the upper end of the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, four very young adults sat at a small stand, making a lowenergy attempt to interest passersby in voting for their party’s list. With flyers joining sandwiches wrappers and empty bottles on the ground, nobody seemed seriously concerned with what was at stake.
Asked if the people they addressed with their flyers had gone to vote, one of the young volunteers answered that, so far, residents hadn’t seemed that interested in hearing about the elections. “We try to get their attention; we were instructed not to be aggressive, but only very few listen to us and even fewer bother to read the flyers,” he said, adding that their friends doing the same in other places reported it was the same everywhere.
4 P.M., HAR NOF and Givat Shaul: The two large haredi neighborhoods are strongholds of the ultra-Orthodox lists, also staunch supporters of Lion. And surprise – at least compared to the elections of 2008, in which Meir Porush ran against Barkat, who won – even here the atmosphere was rather sleepy. Few cars with loudspeakers called on residents to vote, and most of the people in the streets of Givat Shaul – and there were plenty outside – also appeared busy with other issues, picking up children from school and shopping. At the bus stops, there was barely any conversation about the elections.
The issue seemed as if it was simply not on the agenda. A haredi source suggested this could have been due to the fact that no spiritual leader issued an urgent call to vote for a particular candidate. “There is no holy call to leave everything and to go vote for one person as the candidate of the Torah,” explained the source. “So if it is not an obligation, why bother?” In Har Nof, the streets seemed almost abandoned, and in the only sign elections were taking place that day, tons of flyers were scattered. Again, the gap between the volume of campaign literature and the reality – three polling stations visited were almost empty – was larger then expected.
One of the flyers warned, “If you vote Barkat, after the elections you’ll have ghettos for our children, desecration of the Shabbat, selling of non-kosher food and war on the haredi educational institutions” – but none of these flyers said anything about the alternative candidate, Lion. In other words, haredim were being cautioned not to vote for Barkat, but were not instructed to vote for his opponent. This would explain, a few hours later, the failure of the plan hatched by Shas leader Arye Deri and Likud Beytenu’s Liberman to promote Lion – with fewer than 70% of haredim taking part in voting, almost 8,000 of their votes went to ultra-Orthodox candidate Haim Epstein of Bnei Torah.
However, that was not the situation in all the haredi neighborhoods – with brisk business in Geula, Ramot (especially Ramot Polin), Ma’alot Dafna and Ramat Eshkol. There, the streets presented the familiar picture of high activity – and signboards, flyers and cars with loudspeakers were very present. This was even more the case in the Bukharan Quarter and in Shmuel Hanavi neighborhoods – two strongholds of Shas. The majority of the votes Lion ultimately obtained came from their polls; apathy never took hold there.
6 P.M., CITY CENTER, wheelchair-accessible polling station (at least one that was presented as such) at the Experimental junior high school on Rabbi Akiva Street: On the sidewalk in front of the entrance, a small group of volunteers for Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim list politely proffered flyers to arriving voters. Even at this relatively late hour, very few voters were seen.
After a while, a woman in a wheelchair discovered that the “accessible” poll nevertheless had a short step at its entrance. “I can’t get inside,” she said, almost in tears. “I especially came from a long distance, because I was told this is an accessible poll. But it is totally barred for me, and it’s just not fair,” she added, before leaving the place in frustration.
A Central Elections Committee supervisor stationed there noted the same thing had happened earlier that morning, and apparently at another so-called accessible poll. “People don’t realize that even a step of two centimeters is an obstacle when you are in a wheelchair,” he explained sadly.
Meanwhile, on the Web, the atmosphere at Barkat’s headquarters and among his allied lists was moving from high-spirited, as it was at the beginning of the day, to growing alarm. The first doubts appeared on some blogs: “Is it really that bad, or are we being used for spin by a politician?” asked one of the bloggers, referring to the fact that since it was not a vacation day, it was quite expected that the majority of voters would come in after 5 p.m.
An involved debate was launched on Facebook, creating a kind of bubble – as if all of Jerusalem’s residents were supporters of Barkat, and just needed to be reminded to take the trouble to vote. Anxious calls and posts from Barkat’s staff added to the drama.
WHILE EVENTS unfolded on the Web, at Safra Square, shortly after 10 p.m., poll supervisors began to arrive with the votes counted and registered, to be counted again at the Central Elections Commission, housed in a large tent in the plaza itself. At the media center installed by the municipality on the left side of the plaza, a group of journalists were trying to get the first updates on the voter participation percentage – clearly the most important indication before the official counting of results.
Tension was running high, and not for the last time that night.
One after another polling staff arrived with bags full of votes, scrutinized by the guards, who forbade us – the reporters and photographers – from standing by, sending us away. Barkat’s headquarters were a short distance from Safra Square, and seemed the most appropriate place to be at that stage.
At the door to the headquarters stood Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon with two other men. Asked about his feelings now that the polls had closed, Kahlon tried to play the “business as usual” card. He smiled but admitted that the low voter turnout was a problem.
Upon being requested to give a forecast, Kahlon slipped away, adding that it was too early to say.
“Too early to say” would become a familiar refrain for the following hours, until the picture became clear. By that time, Barkat would have left his headquarters for the First Station complex. When we arrived, the place was already full of supporters, members of his list – with both realistic and unrealistic chances of getting mandates – lots of press and members of Barkat’s professional staff. Beer, sandwiches and a strange combination of high hopes, frustration and anxiety defined the atmosphere.
10:30 P.M., LION’S headquarters: The next stop was the challenger’s headquarters in Romema – near his natural allies, the haredim. Lion’s spokesman suggested we head to the Ramada Hotel, where all of his supporters had gathered in expectation of the results, together with the press. At the entrance to the large hall in the Ramada, the first sight was many haredim of all ages, in white shirts and black pants, with and without beards, hanging around and attempting to get even the tiniest bit of information.
Tension was already reaching its peak. Fear, and even anguish at some points, were easily seen on the faces of the people.
Earlier that morning, right after Lion’s vote, Yaron Tzidkiyahu, a merchant at Mahaneh Yehuda, said that even if Lion was not elected, his candidacy should be considered a serious warning for Barkat. Tzidkiyahu, not just a simple merchant but a kind of local seismograph for the atmosphere in the city, was once a great supporter of Barkat, but left him because of what he calls “the indifference shown by this mayor to the real people, beyond all the fireworks he brought here. We deserve more than large cultural events, festivals every two weeks and fancy [Formula 1] races in our streets.”
Asked if he really believed that Lion, an outsider from Givatayim, could be the answer to these needs, Tzidkiyahu answered affirmatively: “At least he does not ignore us, we count.”
“But,” he explained, “that is not the point. Perhaps Lion will not be elected after all; it seems to me that Barkat’s ability and means can pledge him a victory. The point is: Is Barkat going to understand that he needs to review his policy, or will he continue to disregard us?” Inside the hall, another Lion supporter, Tzvika Chernichovski, also once a great supporter of Barkat and today one of his fiercest opponents, appeared to be the first to acknowledge the situation, even before the results came in. “In any case, it will be a very tight battle to the last moment. We have to be ready to live through a long and nerve-racking night, with no clear indications what will come out of it.”
Surrounded by a large number of young and mostly haredi supporters, Chernichovski’s words raised a lot of anger. “We don’t know yet,” countered a young haredi man. “We have the ultra-Orthodox votes, we can rely on them. I’m sure Moshe Lion will be the next mayor.”
Results started being broadcast, online and on TV. Every time some results came in, debates and speculations on their meaning burst out, one minute raising hopes and the next minute spreading frustration. Around 1 a.m., things became clearer, and one could say darker: with official results showing little hope.
Barkat had managed, despite the very low voter participation, to overcome the crisis and win the battle that had caused him and his staff unbearable tension.
Some people began to leave the Ramada. Others hung around for a while, waiting for Lion to address them.
All that time, MK Liberman was in and out of the hall, busy on the phone and then with rumors that Lion had arrived.
It took about half an hour until Lion and Lieberman stepped out of the room where they had been guarded by two tough men, and stepped up to the microphone on the hall’s stage and addressed the public. Obviously moved, Lion nevertheless refrained from any accusations or complaints, putting the emphasis on thanking all staffers, supporters and volunteers, his family, and above all, his friend and ally, Liberman.
Asked if he would stick to his declaration and remain at the city council for next five years as head of the opposition, Lion, for the first time that evening, almost lost his temper, answering, “This is not the time for that.”