Fight for City Hall

Israel's three major parties appear disinterested fielding a candidate in J'lem's municipal elections.

safra city hall 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
safra city hall 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Imagine if both the Democratic and Republican parties sat out a mayoral race in New York City. Or if the current race for London mayor didn't involve either the Conservative or Labor parties. Now consider that Israel's three major parties appear to be willing to let the November 2008 Jerusalem municipal elections pass without fielding a mayoral candidate. Granted, the days are gone when municipal and national politics were inseparable and local victories or setbacks mattered greatly to embattled political parties. Today's cash-strapped parties prefer to stay out of local races wherever and whenever possible. Moreover, large-party sponsorship isn't as crucial an asset in city contests as was once the case. Many mayoral candidates choose to run as "independents" even if they aren't genuinely as divorced from major party links as claimed. Yet the absence of major party participation in some municipal bouts still raises concern - and especially so in the case of Jerusalem. In little over half a year, city residents will go to the polls to elect their mayor. Haredi incumbent Uri Lupolianski, who ran previously under the banner of Degel Hatorah, is trying to convince ultra-Orthodox powerbrokers to back him again. His announced challengers are independent Nir Barkat, who waged an unsuccessful campaign last time around, and Russian-born tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak, who has yet to set up a campaign apparatus. Environmental activist Arieh Haas is also expected to enter the race. Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri let it be known that he'd run if haredim united behind his candidacy. If that happened, he would be expected to appoint former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy as his number two. BUT REGARDLESS of the state of political play, neither Kadima, led by a former Jerusalem mayor, Ehud Olmert, nor Labor, which controlled city hall for decades, nor Likud, which declares it does not want to see the city divided in any peace deal with the Palestinians, seems poised to field its own candidates. Were this just another tedious local competition with the significant issues being garbage collection and repaving sidewalks, the parties could be forgiven for preferring to hold onto their shrinking resources and staying out. But Jerusalem isn't just any township. Shouldn't Jerusalem be precisely the campaign venue where the national parties articulate their vision for the future of our capital? Diplomatically, Israel's control of a united Jerusalem, including the areas won in the 1967 Six Day War, is increasingly being called into question. Demographically, the city is losing many of its young, upwardly mobile and secular Jewish inhabitants as Arabs from Judea and Samaria move in before the security fence cuts the city off from surrounding Arab villages. There's a housing boom - but mostly for people who can afford luxury prices. Meanwhile, the haredi character of Jerusalem grows more pronounced daily - fuelling concerns that the capital is being transformed into a larger version of Bnei Brak - and the deprivation in many quarters is ingrained. More than 53% of Jerusalem's youngsters subsist below the poverty line. This impacts not only the poor. It means that the municipality's income is limited, while its required outlay is beyond its means. The social and cultural aspects of life in Jerusalem cannot remain unaffected. These socioeconomic patterns are dynamic and push more and more young Jerusalemites to the city's satellite communities, or further beyond. ANYONE WHO has strolled down trendy Emek Refa'im, discovered one of the new exotic eateries at the outdoor Mahaneh Yehuda market or seen a movie premiere at the Malha Mall, realizes that Jerusalem - with all its problems - remains a vibrant and desirable place to live. But the absence of the national parties from the 2008 mayoral race sends the opposite signal. If anything, the parties should recruit their best and brightest - their most capable and charismatic headliners - to run for the mayoralty and ensure the most vital features of Jerusalem are maintained and strengthened. Instead, the major parties sing Jerusalem's praises from afar. The city's changing demographics doubtless dishearten them, yet their defeatism only exacerbates the problem. Kadima, Labor and Likud can, even at this late stage, still field powerful contenders and wage a convincing campaign in, and for, the Jerusalem they all profess to feature at the top of their agendas.