Jerusalem mayoral race on knife edge as hassidic party declines to back Lion

The race has become increasingly negative with both sides issuing attack ads against each other.

Moshe Lion (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Moshe Lion
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
After eight candidates were whittled down to two in the race to become the next mayor of Israel’s capital and largest city, Jerusalemites will choose tomorrow between Moshe Lion and Ofer Berkovitch.
The race has become increasingly negative with both sides issuing attack ads against each other, but Lion’s campaign took a significant blow on Monday evening as Agudat Yisrael issued an informal decision telling their hassidic followers to stay at home.
“Sit, and do nothing,” was the unofficial comment delivered by officials from the secretary of its Council of Torah Sages. This means that large numbers of the 26,000 hassidim who voted for the party on October 30 will not vote in the run-off. The statement revived memories of the 2013 mayoral elections in Jerusalem, in which Agudat Yisrael and some of its largest constituent hassidic groups said that they would not intervene. Many hassidim voted for Nir Barkat during the 2008 election, especially the Gur hassidic community, who voted for Barkat in large numbers and swung the election in his favor.
Sources in Agudat Yisrael said that although the message is to not bother voting, it will be seen as tacit permission to vote for Berkovitch.
One source said: “The honor of a king who does not insist on being honored must still be honored,” in reference to the fierce dispute between Agudat Yisrael and its longtime political partner, Degel Hatorah, which represents Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredim.
Severe tensions have developed between Agudat Yisrael and Degel over the municipal elections, and Agudat Yisrael is now loathe to back Lion due to the numerous disputes that have erupted over the last few months between the two parties. The hassidic leadership believes its rabbis have been slighted by Degel in several ways, and their opinion toward their non-hassidic comrades and their candidate is negative, one source said.
After Agudat Yisrael’s decision on Monday, officials in the party stressed Lion’s friendship with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, and the backing the candidate received from the defense minister.
An anonymous and sinister video which was widely spread on WhatsApp among the haredi public declared that “Liberman controls Lion,” and emphasized the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s advocacy for haredi enlistment and criticism of the haredi leadership.
“Berkovitch is preferable over Liberman and has declared that he will protect the [religion and state] status quo and honor of the Council of Torah Sages and the hassidic communities,” the video declared.
Lion’s success in the election’s first round was largely dependent on Shas voters and those of Degel Hatorah.
The race for mayor has focused on a scramble to mop up votes from the two defeated candidates in the first round, Ze’ev Elkin and Yossi Daitch, which totaled some 90,000 votes.
The fact that Lion cannot rely on Agudat Yisrael ’s vote makes the election extremely tight, and is now expected to hinge on voter turnout in the non-haredi sector.
Some 245,000 Jerusalemites voted in the first round, with Lion getting 81,000 votes and Berkowitz 73,000, respectively.
Lion won the endorsement of leaders of the conservative wing of the National Religious community, of whom there are approximately 12,000 voters in the capital, giving him at least 93,000 votes. Berkovitch will have to swing a considerable number of Elkin’s voters to his side to overhaul Lion, although certain numbers of Agudat Yisrael voters who choose Berkovitch may make this task somewhat more obtainable.
Degel and Shas have done everything to bolster voter turnout among their public, including a mass prayer rally at the Western Wall which was held on Monday night, with the participation of spiritual leaders Rabbi Haim Kanievsky of the haredi non-hassidic community and Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the spiritual leader of the Shas movement.
A letter purportedly from Kanievsky was issued where he wrote that there was “no permission whatsoever to refrain from voting for Moshe Lion,” an unprecedented letter of support by a haredi rabbinic leader for a non-haredi, albeit religious, candidate.
Despite the apparent authenticity of the rabbi’s signature, the handwritten letter that was published appeared to have been written in different handwriting, leading to heavy skepticism about the degree to which the revered rabbi was involved in the decision.
The new Bayit Yehudi representatives on the Jerusalem municipal council have also backed Lion, as have senior Likud figures Transport Minister Israel Katz and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
According to a spokesman for Berkovitch, his campaign has 2,500 volunteer activists on the streets of Jerusalem to help get out the vote along with paid campaigners, while Lion’s team said they have 3,500 activists.
Run-off elections are also being held in several large cities, including in Bat Yam, Kfar Saba, Rishon Lezion and Ra’anana.