For the first time in its short history, the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu party is posting a candidate for the mayor of a city. Arkadi Stein yesterday officially joined the growing list of candidates running for the mayorship of Lod in elections on May 14. This may be a small step for Israeli politics, but it is indeed a big step for Yisrael Beiteinu, which is building up a municipal infrastructure ahead of the next Knesset elections.
Yisrael Beiteinu currently has three local council heads, who did not run on a party ticket but are directly associated with it: Mark Basin, head of the Bnei Ayish local council; Abed Shibli, head of the local council of the Bedouin settlement Shibli; and Youssef Karot, head of the local council of the Druze village of Jat. This is an interesting picture for a party that has made "population exchanges" - a euphemism for transfer - an integral part of its platform.
Stein, a 35-year-old businessman, who immigrated to Israel 12 years ago has become the great municipal hope of Yisrael Beiteinu in one of the toughest citys in Israel. Lod's population of 77,000 is composed of 23 percent Arabs (mostly Muslim), 23 percent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and veteran Jewish residents accounting for the remainder of the town's population. Over the year, Lod has become a hothouse for crime and drugs, a situation with which the municipality has failed to contend. The government-appointed council ran the town until recently also failed to deal with its crime and drugs problems and didn't manage to solve the problem of Lod's NIS 110 million deficit.
Distress feeds the tension and racism between the Lod's Jewish and Arab residents. The Ganei Aviv neighborhood, home to the largest concentration of Russian immigrants, now borders the Arab neighborhoods. The immigrants say they are afraid to walk the streets after nightfall.
Immigrants is a very fluid term in Lod: During the run-up to the previous elections, when Yisrael Beiteinu activists would telephone the homes of new immigrants after finding their names and addresses on Interior Ministry lists by checking for ID numbers that are common to the immigrants, they would often be surprised to hear a heavy Arab accent on the other side of the phone. These are Lod's Arab "immigrants", who came there from the territories after marrying local women.
Despite this, and perhaps because of this, there are now five candidates running for the mayoral post: Maxim Levy (who served as mayor of Lod in the 1980s); Gabi Asraf, running for the Labor Party; Benny Regev, independent; and Eli Sa'ar, running for MK Michael Kleiner's Herut-National Movement.
Stein's campaign was launched, almost at the last moment, at the Bustan Hasepharadi wedding hall. All of Yisrael Beiteinu's top brass turned up for the event, encouraged by polls they commissioned that showed 82 percent support for a candidate put forward by Yisrael Beiteinu - 82 percent of Jewish voters that is.
Yisrael Beiteinu's local platform, as that of Herut, is to turn Lod into a Jewish town.
"We have put up a candidate because we don't want Lod to become an Arab town," says Yisrael Beiteinu MK Yuri Stern. Although Stein has joined the race at a late stage, his chances are considered fair. None of the candidates has taken a lead in polls; apparently most residents have not yet decided how they will cast their vote.
In the latest polls, Asraf received 19 percent, Levi 18 percent, Sa'ar 15 percent and Stein received 14 percent even though his campaign hasn't taken off yet, and before Avigdor Lieberman came to town to throw his weight around.
Stein's strong points are that he comes from business rather than politics, and he has a strong connection with the young immigrants. He is also considered by his supporters to be determined in the vein of Lieberman, and like his party boss, his slogan will also be "I gave my word".
Maxim Levy has made deep inroads among the new immigrants, as has Eli Sa'ar. Until Stein's entry into the race, the assumption was that Yisrael b'Aliyah would encourage its public to support Levy, but now they will find it difficult not to support an authentic candidate from among the immigrant community. Behind the scenes, there are rumors of a possible agreement between Kleiner and Lieberman.
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