Elections in Jerusalem - a national test case

Jerusalem’s municipal elections have become a wrestling arena echoing the struggles at the Knesset level

Ze'ev Elkin
The man on the phone couldn’t hide his excitement, describing the stormy situation in the political circles of the haredi sector.
“A new crisis appears almost every day and while the leaders of the party are extinguishing one fire, the next crisis pops up. The national party (United Torah Judaism) is in a great crisis and it will affect the local list,” the man told this reporter. He added that a rumor these days says the next step might be an independent list of Lithuanian haredim running separately for seats on the city council, without the consent of party head MK Moshe Gafni.
Immediately denied by sources connected with the hassidic and the Lithuanian representatives at city council, this eventual step, whether it will happen or not, characterizes the unprecedented atmosphere of breakup inside the haredi sector in the period before the municipal elections scheduled for October 30 in the capital.
But this situation is not unique to the haredi sector. The same pattern can be found in other lists, more or less identified with parties on the national scale. For example, Ze’ev Elkin is running at the head of a local list (based mostly on the list of exiting Mayor Nir Barkat, including its name), but his base is nevertheless the Likud. Unprecedented official support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes i t clear that Elkin is not just another candidate, but in a way the long arm of the government.
Since the early 1980s, only the Meretz council list has been officially identified with a national party and the leaders of the party have always been deeply involved in its composition.
But things are changing. With three candidates identified with the Likud party, two identified with the Bayit Yehudi Party and three (for the moment) or four candidates and/or lists for the haredi sector, the municipal elections have become a wrestling arena echoing the struggles at the Knesset level.
For many years, lists running for the city council have been less identified with national political parties; the tendency was to run with lists linked to local issues and representatives. This began some 36 years ago when legendary mayor Teddy Kollek decided to disconnect himself from the Labor Party to run for mayor of Jerusalem with a local list. Kollek, former chief of staff of David Ben-Gurion and later CEO of the Prime Minister’s Office, was a genuine product of the party, but thought that city affairs should be run separately from the country’s issues and its political context. He believed that people can belong to opposing parties and yet agree on local municipal issues, and therefore local lists for the council should be disconnected from the parties at the Knesset. Kollek was soon followed by a few other mayors elsewhere in the country, as the understanding was that cleaning streets and opening new schools were issues that should not be considered through party lenses.
In November 1993, when Ehud Olmert beat Kollek, it was apparent that while he was leading a local list, he was obviously the long arm of his party, the Likud. The Likud had lost the national elections less than a year before and Olmert, uninterested in the reduced role of an opposition MK, decided to challenge the living legend – Teddy Kollek – and won. Olmert’s victory was a turning point in the political scene; his victory over Kollek was the fruit of an unprecedented step – an alliance between the Likud and the haredim. Olmert understood that the time was ripe to pro- pose this new alliance to the haredim, which led them, for the first time in the country’s history, to join the right-wing party and leave behind them decades of the historical alliance with Labor. With Olmert as mayor of Jerusalem, the haredim won a stronghold at the city council for the first time. Their alliance with the Likud on many levels remains unbroken.
Also in the 1980s, a new political phenomenon appeared in Jerusalem with the creation of the Shas list for the council. Arye Deri was then the assistant to the head of the list, Eli Yishai, and within less than a year, the new party won not only a significant position at the council, but became a formidable party on the national level and joined the Ashkenazi haredim in an alliance with the Likud and the government. Polls say that it is not certain that Shas will still be represented at the next city council, mirroring the fate of this party at the national level. Intensive talks between Deri and United Torah Judaism representatives may show that this possibility is taken seriously.
With the defeat of Kollek in 1993, the representatives of the Labor Party practically disappeared from the city council, apart from brief blinks within other local lists here and there – “a true illustration of what happened to that national party on the political scene” explains former city council member and head of the Meretz list, Pepe Alalu. But strangely enough, that does not mean that the party at the head of the government is in better condition at the city council level. In the 2008 elections, a list for the Likud led by former deputy mayor Elisha Peleg, a member of the Likud himself, didn’t pass the threshold and remained out of the council. Since then, no official list of the Likud has run for the council, despite the city generally identifying with the Right, and a stronghold of this party on the national level.
Meretz is the only list that has maintained its strength, with three seats at the council – although generally in the opposition rows locally, as in the Knesset.
The list shrank to two seats in 2013 elections and polls do not predict an improvement only list that has maintained its strength, with three seats at the council – although generally in the opposition rows locally, as in the Knesset.
The list shrank to two seats in 2013 elections and polls do not predict an improvement.
THINGS ARE not looking good for the religious lists (Bayit Yehudi and National Union) who split, joined together, then split again, ending up – for the moment – with two separate lists, both striving to earn the votes of the Jewish religious population in the city. Polls show that the list identified with the National Union (led by Arieh King and representing mostly Jewish residents living in Arab neighborhoods) may capture one or two seats, but it is not clear whether Bayit Yehudi, led by Hagit Moshe, will pass the threshold, as the religious voters in the city are divided into Modern Orthodox, light religious and hardalim. Further complicating the issue, lists that are officially secular have added haredi representatives in their lists – mostly haredi women.
This is particularly interesting because representation of haredi women in haredi parties is a hot issue. Their presence on pluralist lists might herald a breakthrough of sorts.
For the haredi sector, which is undergoing a tremendous change accompanied by some turmoil, securing a stronghold in Jerusalem is a major issue. Whether or not to run a haredi candidate for mayor is a highly divisive issue for parties in that sector. But while the hassidic forces are still more or less well organized around one or two leaders working together, the situation inside the Lithuanian community is close to chaos.
The hassidic council (10 members responsive to MKs Ya’acov Litzman and Meir Porush) has agreed to approve Deputy Mayor Yossi Daitch to run for mayor, but Daitch cannot run without the support of the Lithuanians, who form the largest part of the haredi sector, and he has not yet gained their support. The Lithuanians are scattered among different internal lines. Some are afraid of running a haredi candidate (“If he loses, it will be a catastrophe for us,” says Lithuanian Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus). Others have already decided on their own to run Deputy Mayor Haim Epstein, who represents the hard line of the Lithuanians – also known as the “Jerusalem Faction” – who protest against drafting haredim into the IDF. They didn’t wait for anyone and officially announced his candidacy a month ago.
Another sector of the Lithuanians are seriously considering running separately for the council, again- without waiting for any leader’s approval. “Since the death of Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman,” says Bezalel Cohen, a Lithuanian himself and part of the ”new haredim” group who support full integration in Israeli society, “there is no longer such a thing as leadership – hence these contradictory steps.” Cohen says that the situation regarding the local elections mirrors the situation of the party at the Knesset level. Degel Hatorah, the Lithuanian part of United Torah Judaism, is on the verge of disruption, “with all the impact that it has on the political national scene.”
How will all these things influence the results of the elections in Jerusalem? Candidate Moshe Lion, running with a local list but identified with the Likud, says that things are sensitive, but he believes that local alliances are still possible, independently from the Knesset. Candidates Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut), MK Rachel Azaria (Yerushalmim), and Yossi Havilio (Saving Jerusalem) are all aiming at the pluralist population – light religious, Modern Orthodox, traditionalists and seculars, and all three of them believe that there will be significant numbers of haredim among their voters as a result of the internal wars.
As for the Likud and candidate Ze’ev Elkin, all parties – supporters and opponents alike – agree that as the unofficial emissary of the prime minister, the coalition he will form, if elected, will hint at what may prevail soon at the Knesset level, regarding inclusion of haredim and/or pluralists.