Zealous campaign

Is Nir Barkat, the city's most vocal spokesman for the secular sector, trying to attract religious voters?

In recent weeks, Jerusalem opposition leader and mayoral candidate Nir Barkat has appeared in various TV ads as a strong opponent of dividing Jerusalem. When asked by critics about his switch to political issues on a national level, Barkat says: "There's nothing new; it's always been my position." But inside the city council, more than one member has noted that Barkat, so far considered the main representative of Jerusalem's secular residents, has increased activity with the religious Zionist constituency. Barkat has met several prominent rabbis from the religious Zionist world, including Benny Elon, Benny Lau and former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu; has appeared in synagogues to answer questions; and last but not least has been deeply involved in the process of choosing a Jerusalem chief rabbi who isn't from the haredi world. He was even involved in Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision not to allow a haredi candidate (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's son) to be considered for the position. In between, Barkat has also been involved in the struggle of religious council employees, including the mikve attendants, whose devotion to duty has stopped them from striking despite the delay in their wages. When asked if he is becoming the candidate for the religious Zionist sector, thus renouncing the secular constituency, he quickly responds: "It is well known that though I do not personally observe a religious way of life, I am an admirer of Jewish tradition. This has always been my personal position; it's just that in the previous elections this issue was not on top of the agenda, and today things are different. "A few months ago, I received a personal letter from Vice Premier Haim Ramon announcing - I know today that it was on behalf of the prime minister - his plan for a partition of Jerusalem between us and the Palestinians," he continues. "I am and have always been against it, so I had to respond publicly." That aside, Barkat says he has always been surrounded by religious Zionist Jews. "During my army duty, I served as a soldier and as an officer with many guys with kippot srugot [crocheted kippot, a reference to the national religious camp], and then later on, in the hi-tech world." Indeed, even now, most of his closest assistants are religious Zionists. "I am closely related [to them], both through my respect and attachment to tradition and the positions on national issues we share." Unlike the haredi sector, the religious Zionist camp is not monolithic. "I wish I could say that we have this [the religious Zionist] public behind us. That would change the picture drastically at the city council," says David Hadari, the newly elected head of the National Religious Party list to the city council. "Our people vote for various lists, otherwise we would certainly have more than four council seats. The result is that the haredim are far over-represented on the city council." Hadari is well aware of the tight ties Barkat is weaving with his own constituency, but nevertheless refuses to engage in anything that could be construed as a pact with Barkat, since the NRP is not running a candidate for mayor. For Barkat, his relationship with the city's religious Zionist sector is clear. "It is not a matter of speculation or efforts to be done. I know for sure, already now, some five months before the elections, that the religious Zionist public in the city understands that I am the only candidate ... capable of leading this city not as a sectorial representative, like the present mayor." Hadari is more cautious. "We had a very fruitful cooperation with this mayor, but of course, I will welcome a coalition with Barkat if he wins the elections." When asked about last week's incident regarding the girls' dance troupe that performed at the Bridge of Strings inauguration in long sleeves and headcoverings, Hadari sounds a bit stressed, but admits that, "Of course, if the ceremony were held at the Western Wall, I wouldn't have agreed to include girls in dance costumes, but on the bridge, in an event open to the general public, I think it was a mistake to dress them like that." Barkat's position on the matter, needless to say, is more harsh. "This [decision] is a disgrace, and this is exactly the kind of situation in which I expect religious Zionist people to rally to the side of sanity and stop the senselessness of this mayor and his fellow haredim." "The problem with our people [religious Zionists] is that they act like the secular sector - we're not sure they will even bother to come to vote," adds Hadari. "I know that religious Zionist residents of Jerusalem wish to follow and support someone who is ready to fight for their votes and cares for the city," concludes Barkat.