In a blow to Moshe Leon’s hopes of supplanting Nir Barkat as mayor of Jerusalem, a key faction of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has announced that it won’t support Leon, whose main patron is Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, in the upcoming municipal elections. Instead it will run a candidate of its own.
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Though Leon officially represents the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, he is also backed by the two major ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and was counting on Jerusalem’s large Haredi community to provide the bulk of his votes.
However, a breakaway faction of UTJ known as Bnei Torah has now decided to run its own candidate, Haim Epstein, in the election that is set to take place in three weeks time. Epstein is considered to have zero chance of winning, but his presence in the race could split the Haredi vote and thereby benefit Barkat – who in any case is leading in the polls.
Bnei Torah represents the more extreme wing of the “Lithuanian,” or non-Hasidic, Ashkenazi Haredim. Its decision to run its own candidate stems partly from its loathing of Lieberman, Leon’s main patron, and partly from its belief that Haredim should always prefer a Haredi candidate to a non-Haredi one. Leon, though an Orthodox Jew, is not ultra-Orthodox.
Bnei Torah commands a bloc of only about 5,000 votes. But since most non-Haredim back Barkat, Leon’s campaign strategy depends on getting almost all the Haredi community’s 90,000 to 100,000 votes, plus about 30,000 from secular and religious Zionist voters.
Moreover, now that there’s a Haredi candidate in the race, other Haredim may also decide to vote for him.
Leon’s Haredi campaign is also suffering from the fact that he hasn’t yet been formally endorsed by two of the Haredi world’s leading rabbis – Aharon Leib Shteinman for the Lithuanian community and Ovadia Yosef for the Sephardi community. The latter is currently unable to endorse anyone, as he is hospitalized in very serious condition.
Bnei Torah broke away from Degel Hatorah – the non-Hasidic wing of UTJ, which also includes a Hasidic wing, Agudat Yisrael – after the death of the Lithuanian community’s previous rabbinic leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, last year. Elyashiv’s death sparked a leadership battle in which most of the community favored Shteinman as his successor, but a faction based in Jerusalem preferred the more stringent Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. Since then, the Jerusalem faction has set up its own newspaper and started its own party, and is now running candidates for city council in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Modi’in Ilit.