Changes in Jerusalem: What's new in local politics in Israel's capital?

11 months away from the Jerusalem city council and mayoral elections, Ofer Berkovitch’s departure – even if, as he emphasized, being only temporary – shakes things up.

 MAYOR MOSHE LION serving without a city council faction of his own is strange, to say the least. (Pictured: In Sept., visiting Jerusalem students on the first of day school). (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MAYOR MOSHE LION serving without a city council faction of his own is strange, to say the least. (Pictured: In Sept., visiting Jerusalem students on the first of day school).
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Hitorerut chairman Ofer Berkovitch’s dramatic – but, to some extent, expected – announcement to step down as the movement’s leader breathed a bit of life into the sleepy local politics scene.

But 11 months away from the city council and mayoral elections, Berkovitch’s departure – even if, as he emphasized, being only temporary – shakes things up.

Berkovitch, due to various reasons, actually blocked the path of the largest non-Orthodox movement in the city – seven seats on the city council – from entering Moshe Lion’s coalition.

Whether we accept the mayor’s version (“I did what I could to bring in Hitorerut, but Berkovitch prevented it”) or Berkovitch’s version (“Lion didn’t want me near him and preferred to team up with the ultra-Orthodox”), the bottom line is that for the past four years at Safra Square there hasn’t been any non-haredi sector representative in the coalition.

But that’s not the whole picture. The fact that the mayor is able to serve on the council without a faction of his own is strange, to say the least, not to mention improper. (Lion defeated Berkovitch by 3,700 votes in the mayoral race, but his faction failed to garner a single seat on the city council.)

SAFRA SQUARE has become the headquarters of Jerusalem’s battle against the virus. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)SAFRA SQUARE has become the headquarters of Jerusalem’s battle against the virus. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

There are no legal issues, but it means the mayor is very dependent on the members of his coalition. Since this is Jerusalem, any tipping of the delicate balance between the ultra-Orthodox public and the general public has far-reaching consequences for the decisions made on the council.

The rumor that has been floating around Safra Square in recent months is that Lion is seriously considering not running in the next elections as the head of a party list but as an independent mayoral candidate. Lion realized, after the initial embarrassment when the results were announced in 2018, that being dependent on coalition members is not too bad, and it is better for him to give up the headaches every faction chairman gets in the face of the demands and whims of his faction colleagues.

Officially, Lion has outrightly declined to answer any questions about his preparations for next year’s elections, saying he is too busy working for the city; therefore, the residents will judge him based on his actions and not on his campaign. 

Obviously, in practice, this is far from being the case, and preparations are taking place, although for now, behind the scenes and discreetly.

How has the Jerusalem local political arena changed?

But as mentioned, Berkovitch’s retirement from the local politics chessboard changes the picture completely. Adir Schwartz, an energetic young man, and Einav Bar-Cohen, one of the founders of the movement, will compete on November 17 for the leadership of the Hitorerut movement. 

If indeed, as he has claimed countless times, Lion is very interested in including Hitorerut in his coalition, something that, according to him, was prevented due to the ongoing confrontation between him and Berkovitch, there is a reasonable chance that we will soon see two new deputy mayors, or at least one.

But even before that, one must ask who will benefit from such a move. In an election year, when it is still not clear what Hitorerut’s position will be in relation to running a mayoral candidate from its faction, it is likely its eventual entry into Lion’s coalition will mainly benefit... Lion. It is no secret that Lion hasn’t had an easy time with a coalition that doesn’t have any representatives from the non-Orthodox public in the city, and many times he has expressed his regret that he has no way to bring the secular population back to the city or at least prevent them from leaving

Adding Hitorerut to his coalition could slightly curb the appetite of the ultra-Orthodox factions, which sometimes get confused between their sincere concern for the public that voted for them and their desire to take over the city. 

The question is, what will Hitorerut gain from this?

Besides the entry of its senior representatives into the decision-making processes and gaining experience, important in itself, Hitorerut will benefit from a kind of renewed visibility in the local arena. Is this enough to stimulate the territory and its natural supporters for elections? In other words, is this the move that will allow the movement to record another achievement and get seven or even more seats in the next council? 

It is too early to say. ❖