Fragile partnerships

Mayor Nir Barkat, faithful to his position, will seek the largest coalition he can build, but he might choose only those who have shown him loyalty.

Nir Barkat celebrates election victory 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Nir Barkat celebrates election victory 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The ovations – and disappointment – following the Jerusalem municipal elections are behind us; at Safra Square, it’s time to get back to work.
The next city council meeting will not take place before the end of this month, but by now there is enough information to paint an initial picture of who is still here, who is new and who is gone.
For the moment, there are no official declarations from reelected Mayor Nir Barkat regarding his plans for the coalition, but two things are certain: First, Barkat, faithful to his position, will seek the largest coalition he can build; and second, loyalty toward him will be the major key this time to understanding his selection of partners for the next five years. And with the votes in this race split into multiple lists, his task won’t be easy anyway.
One of the first changes in the new council results from the defeat of Meretz, which obtained just two seats instead of three – a marked contrast to the party’s upward trend on the national scale. It is emblematic that while right-wing activist Arieh King – renowned for his pledge to ensure the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount and to develop Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of Arab east Jerusalem – will take his place on the city council, Meretz’s Meir Margalit, King’s longtime political opponent (though personal relations between the two are good), is stepping down.
Quite a few new people will populate the council’s comfortable leather armchairs as of this month. But before going further, it is important to point out that this will be a council with far fewer women than its predecessor. This is particularly strange, considering that this election campaign witnessed three lists headed by women, including one publicly presented as a women’s list.
Nonetheless, Yael Antebi, a resident of the large Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood (with 75,000 residents), has maintained her position and won reelection, with one seat on the council for her Pisgat Ze’ev on the Map party. Yerushalmim’s Rachel Azaria has obtained two seats, one for her and one for Tamir Nir, a resident of Beit Hakerem and a student at a Reform rabbinical college.
According to an agreement Azaria signed with her partners on the list, Nir will be replaced, in a rotation, by (Orthodox) Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz – the party’s No.
3 and president of the Lev Ha’ir neighborhood council.
Today, Barkat sees Azaria as an obvious partner.
However, that was not the case during the last council’s term, when Barkat fired her from his coalition in response to her High Court petition against the municipality two years ago. The purpose of the petition was to force the police and the municipality to prevent the haredi leadership from putting up fences to separate men and women on Mea She’arim Street during Succot celebrations. Azaria explained that her inclusion of the municipality in the petition was a formality, but Barkat felt betrayed and chased her out of the coalition. As a result, she became an overnight heroine of pluralism and gender equality in the city (as well as in the rest of the country, thanks to the media) – and she made the most of it to fuel her campaign’s popularity.
Barkat also refused, before and long after that incident, to appoint her as his eighth deputy, due to the fierce opposition of the haredim on the city council – particularly the camp led by deputy mayor Yitzhak Pindrus. But right from the beginning of the present campaign, Azaria openly and publicly called for supporting Barkat, and now she will be one of his first partners (and probably deputy mayor) in the new council.
MEANWHILE, HITORERUT, the big winner in this election, will have four seats on the council: leader Ofer Berkovitch; No. 2 Hanan Rubin; Einav Bar, a law student at the Hebrew University and a resident of the Ramat Sharett neighborhood; and Elad Malka, who has a degree in economics and political science and will serve as coordinator of the movement’s religious sector.
Pepe Alalu and Laura Wharton will represent Meretz – though Alalu’s leadership is being contested among supporters and, most importantly, among those in the party’s Jerusalem branch. They consider him responsible for having caused the drop in the popularity of the party, which had managed to maintain – in what many see as a mostly right-wing city – a steadfast three seats on the council and membership in the coalition (not to mention Alalu’s own paid position as deputy mayor).
Against all odds, Alalu insisted on running for mayor himself, withdrawing his candidacy only late in the game due to heavy pressure from his party. Then, despite his partners’ opposition, he publicly called for people to abstain in the mayoral vote. His major reason was that Barkat was a right-wing candidate and therefore should not enjoy the left-wing residents’ support.
Moreover, an alliance with the Labor Party, which was expected to bring in more votes, didn’t deliver the goods, and Meretz, at least as of the beginning of this week, is not considered likely to be a partner in the coalition.
Splits were apparently the theme of this election, since they hit almost all the parties. Bayit Yehudi’s sole representative following the party’s split will be Dov Kalmanovitz, and the party’s counterpart, Unified Jerusalem, will have two seats, for former deputy mayor Shmuel Shkedi and King.
As for Barkat’s list, Jerusalem Will Succeed, it has also dropped by two seats, going from six representatives to four: Barkat, Rami Levy, Meir Turgeman and Kobi Kahlon. The loss of seats means that the party’s No. 5, Marina Kontsevaya – the first woman on the list – will not be a member of the council.
The most spectacular changes are on the haredi benches, where sacred alliances have become remnants of the past and there are now four lists, three of which have succeeded in getting onto the council.
Shas, under the leadership of former deputy mayor Eli Simhayof, has five seats – one more than in the previous council. But unless the court acquits him of involvement in the Holyland affair, the newcomers to Safra Square who occupy the next four slots on his list have little chance of becoming part of the coalition. Not only has Shas, under party leader Arye Deri, been part of the project to run accountant Moshe Lion against Barkat – a move that the mayor is not ready to forget or forgive at the moment – but Barkat has already made it clear in any event that, as was the case in the previous council, Simhayof is persona non grata in all council meetings and cannot be appointed deputy mayor.
After Simhayof on the list are Tzvika Cohen, Netanel Lasri, Nahmiel Sabban, Michael Malchieli and Asher Mishali – the only member remaining from last council, who will take the fifth slot if Simhayof is not acquitted.
As for the Ashkenazi-haredi list, it seems that the traditional alliance that kept the Lithuanian and hassidic factions of United Torah Judaism together despite their internal disagreements is already gone. The first split occurred between the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah faction and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael, with the decision by the Ger and then the Belz hassidic sects to vote independently according to their own interests. The split in the city council list, even if not de jure, is already de facto: While rumor has it that Degel Hatorah’s Pindrus, one of the architects of the campaign to garner haredi support for Lion, might be forced to resign after the heavy loss he caused his constituency, it seems that the situation of UTJ’s hassidic faction leader, Yossi Daitch, is little better.
But whatever their future within their own communities, the two are entirely out of the question for an eventual coalition. Sources close to the mayor expressed clearly earlier this week that “loyalty to Barkat is the major key to forming the coalition. Those who tried to defeat this mayor cannot expect to merit a part in the coalition.”
Yet this was not the only split in haredi society that these elections have spawned. The radical Bnei Torah party, led by Haim Epstein, has won one seat, and it does not feel it owes anything to its less lucky fellows in the haredi camp. Contrary to rumors that have circulated, Epstein has no signed promise from Barkat that he will become deputy mayor, but the aforementioned source added that “there is no objection to including him in the coalition.”
Besides Epstein, who might become deputy mayor immediately upon entering the local political scene, eight Ashkenazi haredim will represent their community: Pindrus (though his status is still uncertain), Daitch (representing Agudat Yisrael), Israel Kellerman, Yohanan Weizman, Michael Halbershtam, Eliezer Rauchberger, Ya’acov Halperin, and Shlomo Rozenstein of the Vizhnitz Hassidic sect – the same number of seats as in the previous council.
The Tov Party, representing haredim who work for a living, didn’t manage to pass the threshold in these elections, but continues to exist as a party and has already announced that it is working toward the next elections – either municipal or for the Knesset.
Ultimately, even though the haredi camp will have a total of 13 representatives on the new council, all sources agree that its power is on the wane due to the party splits, as well as the failure of running with Lion.
Meanwhile, Likud Beytenu, the party that Lion led, has taken the worst blow of these elections and dropped from two seats in the last council to barely one in the new council, passing the threshold by only 40 votes. So far, all assessments are that Lion will not remain in the opposition at city council, and since his No. 2, David Amsallem, has no chance of being appointed deputy mayor, he has let it be known that he will not give up his job as chief of the municipality’s Department for Beautifying the City, and therefore will not become a city councilman. That leaves either Vladimir Shklar or Elisha Peleg as Likud Beytenu’s sole representative on the city council – in the opposition, without a doubt.
Without Meretz, Likud Beytenu, Shas and UTJ, Barkat will have only 15 of the council’s 31 members in his coalition (16 including his own seat) – obviously a fragile arrangement. At Safra Square, the bets are in favor of a renewed – though still bitter – alliance with Meretz, provided that the party’s local branch manages to replace Alalu as leader, since Barkat has sworn he will not renew ties with him.
This is what began on Sunday afternoon. It is too early as yet to say what will come of it. •