In Jerusalem Election, Candidates Compete for a Spot in the Final Round

Most candidates believe that Ofer Berkovitch, the only serious nonreligious contender and the youngest of the bunch, will make it to the expected second round

Election posters of Ofer Berkovitch in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

One week before the polls open, the fog surrounding the local election in Jerusalem refuses to disperse. The large field of candidates and the question marks hanging over ultra-Orthodox voters make it harder than usual to predict the city’s next mayor. Whatever happens, though, it’s pretty clear that the decision will be made in a runoff election. The vote next Tuesday is for a spot in the finals.

Most candidates believe that Ofer Berkovitch, the only serious nonreligious contender and the youngest of the bunch, will make it to the expected second round. Maneuvering for the second spot are Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin, Deputy Mayor Yossi Daitch and City Council member Moshe Leon, with the latter considered the likeliest bet. How that might turn out is anyone’s guess; for Jerusalem, a runoff election — when polls open later and workers won’t get a day off — is something totally new.

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The top four candidates — and Avi Salman, who presumably doesn’t stand a chance — held a debate at The Lab (“Hama’abada”). The mostly-young crowd was much more volatile than the five candidates on the stage. Though they were often heckled, the contenders they remained calm. The only time any of them raised their voices or lost their cool was when each had to address his weak spot.

For Daitch, it was the absence of women on his city council slate. “Each according to his beliefs,” he replied. “You don’t have to agree with me.” For Berkovitch, it was a question about campaign funding. His party, Hitorerut, has yet to report its major donors, though it’s clear his campaign has cost millions. “I took loans from 50 or 60 people; I got contributions from a thousand people; I’m getting money from the public in Jerusalem, not from oligarchs and not from political parties,” Berkovitch said. “Stop with the insults and the slander.”

Leon lost his cool when Elkin complained about his absence from a debate on the Kol Harama radio station last week. Elkin accused Leon of avoiding the debate on orders from Interior Minister Arye Dery, who is boycotting the station.

“You know I respect you and once was a good friend of yours, but in this whole campaign there hasn’t been a truthful word spoken,” Leon said to Elkin angrily. When Elkin was asked by Leon about his plan to go back to the cabinet if his campaign doesn’t succeed, Elkin replied, “I will continue to live in Jerusalem, but I’ll be in a place where I can have the most influence. What can I do, I’ve contributed to the city more than you.”

An old joke in the Haredi community is that if there’s a fire, you first call Daitch so that he can call the firefighters. Daitch is a well-liked public servant among the Haredim, which is why he had hoped to coalesce the entire Haredi community behind him. This hope was dashed when Leon surprised everyone by getting the support of Shas and Degel Hatorah. This splits the city’s Haredi electorate between two candidates and three parties — Shas, the Hasidic Agudath Israel and the Dat list, representing Degel Hatorah.

>> Read more: This Year's Mayoral Race in Jerusalem Is All About the Religious Zionists | Analysis ■ The Next Mayor of the Middle East's Powder Keg?

Both Leon and Elkin were hoping that Leon’s snagging of those Haredi endorsements would lead Daitch and his Agudath Israel backers to abandon the race. Leon hoped that he could thus unite the entire Haredi electorate behind him, while Elkin hoped that anger at Leon for splitting the Haredi rabbinical leaders would lead Agudath Israel to support Elkin.

But Daitch decided to continue with a full-court press. Anyone wandering around Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods will see evidence of his massive campaign. Daitch is hoping that his personal appeal and the seemingly inexplicable decision by the non-Hasidic rabbis to back a non-Haredi candidate will win him votes from the rival camp in the end. Meanwhile, the main beneficiary of all these intrigues has been Berkovitch, who is hoping that Daitch not only sticks out the campaign, but ends up facing him in the second round.

On the sideline of all this are campaigns to deal with the city’s real issues. Most of the candidates have focused above all on the lack of affordable housing in the city, with all of them presenting plans for increasing construction, ignoring the fact that if the prime minister decides to freeze construction plans for political reasons, there’s little the mayor can do. Judging by the candidate’s platforms, the second most important issue is the city’s sanitation problems. Other issues that have been raised are the status quo between Haredim and secular residents; the city’s economic development; public transportation and education. Along with all these is the elephant in the room, the issue that all the contenders seem to be ignoring — East Jerusalem.