Capital challenge

Nir Barkat’s departure has sparked a mayoral race rich with candidates, rivalries and schisms that reflect Jerusalem’s social disjointedness, and the hegemonic Right’s internal rifts.

A man blows a shofar during mayoral candidate Nir Barkat’s visit to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on November 6, 2008 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A man blows a shofar during mayoral candidate Nir Barkat’s visit to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on November 6, 2008
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
“JERUSALEM IS one city, indivisible,” prime minister Menachem Begin wrote US president Jimmy Carter in September 1978, in a letter famously annexed to the Camp David Accords.
True or not, that indivisibility pertained to the city’s diplomatic status. Politically, the capital approaches next month’s municipal election divided as it never was, with a plethora of mayoral candidates wrestling to succeed Nir Barkat, who after two five-year terms decided to transition to national politics.
Of 10 formal candidacies, at least four seem viable and none seems poised to win the October 30 poll’s first round by the minimum requirement of 40 percent. A runoff, which is held between an inconclusive first round’s two leaders, would itself be a novelty.
Held two weeks after the first round, second- round mayoral elections have been common in Israel since the 1978 reform, which stipulated that voters cast two separate ballots, one for the mayor and one for a city council candidate list. However, no second round was ever held in any of Israel’s four major cities.
Now, in what reflects the capital’s social disjointedness and the Likud-led establishment’s fractiousness, polls indicate that a second round is inevitable, at least as long as no major candidate has withdrawn.
Lurking beyond this scramble are the ambitious construction projects and urban identity dilemmas of a metropolis that prides itself on its spiritually inspiring, but politically daunting, life between heaven and earth.
THE COMMON denominator between all candidates is that each has played a role in Jerusalem’s political affairs: half a dozen as deputy mayors, one as minister for Jerusalem affairs, one as a councilman, one as a City Hall executive, and one as an adviser for Mayor Barkat.
The lone candidate who has not been involved in Jerusalem’s affairs, Labor MK and former IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Nachman Shai, is believed to have decided to withdraw, as polls indicate he cannot break into the leading pack.
That leaves in the prospective also-rans category Yossi Havilio, who was the municipal legal advisor under Barkat; Avi Salman, who was the outgoing mayor’s political adviser; and Kobi Kahlon, who was Barkat’s No. 2 until 2015 and is also the brother of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
None of these candidacies represents a broad social constituency or political machinery, and thus seem even more anecdotal than that of the 71-year-old Shai, who would have represented the city’s declining electorate of Labor-affiliated, secular, well-to-do Ashkenazim.
The real race involves six politicians who split into three antagonistic pairs, each representing one of the capital’s three major Jewish populations: the ultra-Orthodox, the religiously traditionalist conservatives, and the liberals. A fourth population – the modern Orthodox – is within and between the conservatives and liberals.
This division is very schematic, yet broadly speaking, these are the main electorates among Jerusalem’s Jews, who in 2015 constituted 62.6% of the capital’s 865,700 inhabitants, according to the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem.
The city’s Arab population, though legally allowed to vote and politically encouraged to do so by every Israeli government since 1967, almost entirely avoids voting, in line with Palestinian leaders’ warnings over the years that voting would imply recognition of Israeli rule over Jerusalem.
The leading candidates, according to polls, are Jerusalem Affairs and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, 47, who carries Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement; Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch, 50, of United Torah Judaism, who purports to represent all of ultra-Orthodoxy; and 35-yearold councilman Ofer Berkovitch, the only secular candidate and a former deputy mayor, seen as the voice of the liberal middle class.
Trailing behind this pack are councilman Moshe Lion, 57, a CPA who was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term, and MK (Kulanu) Rachel Azarya, 40, a social activist who was deputy mayor before moving to national politics in 2015. Both are observant, as is Elkin.
According to a poll conducted in early August by the Midgam Institute, Elkin, Deitch and Berkovitch currently wield just over 20% each, Lion 11%, and Azarya 6%.
Israeli election polls have been widely off mark in the past, and Jerusalem is in this regard particularly problematic, as many of its inhabitants are reluctant to cooperate with pollsters, and some would also readily mislead them.
Even so, one conclusion can be drawn already at this stage from the unfolding saga, and it is that none of the candidates is sufficiently charismatic to sweep voters across sectarian divides, the way Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert did in their days.
This is in terms of who is running. In terms of who is not running, the vacancy in Jerusalem’s Safra Square has failed to attract a political parachutist like Barkat, who ran for mayor as a self-made hi-tech billionaire; or like Shlomo Lahat (1927-2014), the newly retired IDF general who, in 1974, wrested Tel Aviv from Labor and launched a memorable, 21-year mayoralty.
There was no shortage of such theoretical candidates this time around, from former IDF chiefs of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Beni Gantz, through former Jerusalem Police chief (and current Yesh Atid MK) Mickey Levi, to Ori Allon, a hi-tech entrepreneur who bought and led to stardom the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club.
The failure of such external figures to emerge may reflect the complex job’s unattractiveness, or just the belated timing of Barkat’s announcement of his departure last March, a delay possibly designed to allow his new patron, Netanyahu, to ease into the capital’s cockpit a loyalist of his choice.
The bottom line is that Jerusalem’s next mayor will be an uncharismatic career politician.
CHARISMA’S ABSENCE in this race is particularly glaring in the case of the most prominent contender, the Russian-born Elkin, whose visible status as the protégé at Netanyahu’s side during his frequent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin should have made his mayoral bid a cakewalk.
That is what the journey to municipal politics was like for Kollek, back when he won Jerusalem’s mayoralty in 1965, after having previously served David Ben-Gurion as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
In Kollek’s case, the transition from protégé to leader was smooth, thanks to his phenomenal combination of vision, imagination, humor, administrative skill and charisma. Elkin may still prove to possess such abilities, but most voters have yet to assume he does.
A gifted chess player and mathematician, Elkin abandoned a PhD program in history at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem to pursue a political career, entering the Knesset in 2006 as a member of Kadima, which he left following the party’s election in 2008 of Tzipi Livni as its leader.
The hawkish Elkin’s migration to the Likud was truly ideological, and no one doubted his sincerity when the West Bank settler from Kfar Eldad explained that Livni was too Leftist for him.
Coupled with his religious Orthodoxy and the backwind of Netanyahu’s support, which Elkin’s billboard ads emphasize, one might have expected his candidacy to dominate the rest. Instead, he for now seems unable to avoid a runoff, and in fact might not pass the first round, a prospect that would constitute a major embarrassment for Netanyahu.
Technically, the man grounding Elkin’s candidacy is Lion, not because the stocky, bespectacled and ever-smiling head of the Department of Neighborhood Administrations is a political heavyweight, but because his and Elkin’s target audience is the same hardcore Likud electorate.
Lion hails from a Sephardi family from Salonika, Greece. That gives him an advantage with some non-Ashkenazim, and also explains why he enjoys the potent backing of Shas leader Arye Deri.
Elkin’s Russian accent is in this regard a liability, though the man originally named Vladimir Borisovich obviously has an advantage with Russian-speaking voters. Then again, Lion’s political patron of 25 years is Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s most quintessentially “Russian” politician after Natan Sharansky.
The splintering that plagues the conservative vote is also plaguing the ultra-Orthodox electorate.
The wild-bearded Deitch’s candidacy is obstructed by the short-bearded Deputy Mayor Haim Epstein’s. The difference between the two is that Deitch is a Hasid, specifically a follower of the Rebbe of Slonim, while Epstein hails from the mitnagdim – Hebrew for “opponents,” as they were known in prewar Europe – meaning the anti-Hasidim of the Lithuanian yeshivas.
Of the two, Deitch is decisively stronger, reflecting the Hasidic communities’ larger numbers, both in Jerusalem and nationally.
Moreover, Epstein represents only one strand of the mitnagdim, the so-called “Jerusalem faction,” which opposes UTJ’s pragmatism on issues like conscription. Still, Deitch for now is failing to harness non-Hasidic ultra- Orthodoxy.
Lastly, the city’s liberal vote is split between the candidacies of Berkovich and Azarya.
The pair, both lifelong Jerusalemites (unlike Elkin and Lion), entered City Council on a joint ticket back in 2008, but parted ways along with their movements – Berkovich’s Hitorerut (Awakening) and Azarya’s Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites) – which promoted the same causes of pluralism, feminism and tolerance, and eyed the same liberal, educated, middle-class electorate, both religious and secular.
WITH THE FIELD so crowded, it is likely that some candidates will withdraw as election day approaches, whether to avoid defeat or to obtain a deal.
The most reasonable such resignation would be Lion’s, whose original strategy after losing narrowly to Barkat in 2013 was to become Barkat’s ally, and when he moves plan has suffered a direct hit by Netanyahu’s endorsement of a rival candidacy that targets the same electorate.
Then again, Lion is still in a position to devastate Elkin’s candidacy. Elkin has a good chance to defeat any rival in the second round, but if Lion runs in the first round he might siphon the very votes Elkin needs to reach the second round.
The Jerusalem race, then, reflects the looseness of the conservative federation with which Netanyahu has been running Israel for a decade.
It is unclear how much Netanyahu really cares if Elkin loses and the capital’s mayor is either an ultra-Orthodox Hasid or a Liberman loyalist. If he does care, he will pressure Liberman and Deri to have Lion step aside, in exchange for becoming Elkin’s No. 2.
WHATEVER NETANYAHU’S inclination, for now there is no sign that Lion or his sponsors are open for a deal. Elkin seems to them vulnerable, and the smell of his potential defeat may prove too tempting for both Liberman and Deri, clearly two of Israel’s most cunning political maestros.
The ultra-Orthodox candidates’ options are no less tricky.
On the face of it, they enjoy a solid and disciplined electorate with a high voter turnout. However, Israel’s 16th local elections will be a vacation day, for the first time since 1978.
That change works against ultra-Orthodox candidates, whose voters include thousands of non-working yeshiva students, for whom it was easier to make time for a vote than it was for working people. A second round’s voting day will not be a vacation, but a higher secular turnout in the first round, and the electoral damage of an additional ultra-Orthodox candidate, make it uncertain that the ultra- Orthodox candidate will make it to the second round.
Deitch, therefore, has reason to consider withdrawing and have his rabbis order ultra- Orthodox voters to back Elkin, and then “own” him by ultra-Orthodoxy’s dominance in City Council, where its parties currently hold 14 of 31 seats.
Such a strategy would have Deitch focus on the ultra-Orthodox communities’ narrow needs, most notably new housing and additional classrooms, while foregoing the idea of running the entire city.
That would be in line with ultra-Orthodox memories from the lone ultra-Orthodox mayoralty, Uri Lupolianski’s in 2003-2008, which was problematic not only for his opponents, who felt he neglected secular neighborhoods, schools, and cultural life, but also from an ultra-Orthodox viewpoint.
For instance, Lupolianski was forced by a court ruling to budget the capital’s gay parade.
That kind of situation is a big problem for ultra-Orthodox politicians who specialize in maneuvering opposite secular government, but may face unsolvable dilemmas when assigned with replacing it.
Jerusalem’s liberals, by contrast, face no such dilemmas.
Comprising secular, traditional and modern Orthodox voters, they want the mayoralty, and may well win it, but their struggle’s prospects are burdened by the Berkovitch-Azarya rivalry.
Azarya rejects the polls’ indication that her support is decisively smaller than Berkovich’s.
“I intend to be elected mayor,” she told The Report, arguing that polls flattering Berkovich ignore the high number of undecided voters, and also indicate he can’t win.
As the only female candidate, she believes she will win votes from across the spectrum, including ultra-Orthodox women for her struggles over the years against women’s exclusions; secular mothers for her extension of the kindergarten year from 10 to 11 months; and liberal men for her crusades against ultra- Orthodox expansionism.
Azarya’s opponents say that while she was at the Knesset, Berkovich established himself as liberal, middle-class Jerusalemites’ leader, fighting to create long-term rental housing projects; raise taxes on uninhabited luxury apartments; keep the First Station complex open on Shabbat; incentivize the ultra-Orthodox population to work, and reach out to the city’s Arab population.
“We are the only ones who set a team in east Jerusalem, in order to follow closely the Arab neighborhoods’ special needs,” Berkovich told The Report.
WHOEVER IT is, the next mayor will be there when Jerusalem undergoes a metropolitan revolution.
First, the fast train to Tel Aviv, whose inauguration is expected later this year, will cut the east-west journey to a mere 30 minutes.
The consequent feasibility of working on the coast while residing in the capital will likely impact profoundly the city’s economy, demographics, and culture.
Secondly, a cluster of glitzy office towers is planned to surround the new central train station at the city’s western entrance. Assisted by the expansion of the already thriving hi-tech zone in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem’s new City complex will generate thousands of jobs for young, upwardly mobile professionals. Just like the train will let Jerusalemites work in Tel Aviv, the City will allow Tel Aviv residents to work in Jerusalem.
Lastly, the city’s light rail line will be joined next decade by two more lines, shortly after the next mayoral term ends.
Taken all together, these transformations call for a long-term vision as Jerusalem becomes a metropolis of one million people, whose Arab and Jewish sections remain estranged.
Jerusalem’s intensifying modernization will push many to call for, and others to resist, a new balance between the sanctity and mundanity that together form its troubled soul Sadly, these challenges are not part of the mayoral debate, which is less about ideas and visions and more about identity politics, self-congratulation and backdoor deals.
Even Elkin’s controversial plan to sever some of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods from its municipality, as discussed here last winter (“A tale of two cities,” March 5), is no issue in a contest animated by all candidates’ vows to unite the holy city that, for now, they are collectively dividing.