Last Sunday, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and incumbent Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat participated in a ceremony to lay the cornerstone for a new Jewish neighborhood. It lies between the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv and Jabal Mukkaber, a predominantly Arab neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem.
For an outside observer, this event raises two questions. First, no actual cornerstone was laid because two stories were constructed several years ago.
Second, since when do a mayor and a housing minister take part in an event marking the establishment of a tiny privately-built neighborhood (numbering, in this case, only 63 housing units)?
However, if the event is seen through the prism of the upcoming municipal elections in Jerusalem, the picture becomes clearer.
The cornerstone laying ceremony is one more stage in Barkat’s attempt to win the support of the Jerusalem’s religious Zionist community since the new neighborhood is designed to provide homes for members of that community.
The two main mayoral candidates, Barkat and Moshe Leon, may be opposites in a lot of ways, but they agree on one thing: Jerusalem’s mayoralty race will be decided by the city’s religious Zionist voters.
In the 2003 municipal elections, they tipped the scales in favor Uri Lupolianski over Barkat, while, in the 2008 elections, they were responsible for the victory of Barkat, the secular Jewish candidate, over the ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidate, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism).
According to Nahum Barnea of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Jerusalem’s 2008 municipal elections paved the way for the alliance between Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party.
Barkat hopes he can bank on the support of religious Zionist voters in the upcoming elections as well, although the candidate running against him, Leon, ostensibly has two advantages: Leon is a religious Zionist and his children attend hesder yeshivas (which allow soldiers to combine military service and Talmudic studies during their compulsory tour of duty in the Israel Defense Forces).
As things stand presently, Barkat apparently still enjoys the support of the religious Zionist community. In a ceremony that took place only 100 meters from the press conference where Leon announced his candidacy, Barkat was honored by B’Sheva, newspaper associated with that community, and granted an award. At the cornerstone laying ceremony last Sunday, in addition to Housing Minister Ariel and Mayor Barkat, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a prominent religious Zionist rabbi, and MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), who chairs the Knesset Finance Committee, were also present. Slomiansky publicly declared that he hoped that Barkat would be reelected.
The support of the religious Zionist community for Barkat will reach a new high with the publication today of a letter of public support for him from several leading religious Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the network of Bnei Akiva yeshivas; Rabbi Aviner; Brigadier General (res.) Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, former chief rabbi of the IDF; and other prominent Religious Zionist rabbis.
This week, at an election campaign meeting attended by many religious Jews, Leon stated, “I think that, at the end of the day, people (that is, religious Zionist Jews) will realize that I belong in their court. Each day, the number of religious Zionists supporting my candidacy increases, because they meet me face to face and understand that I am their ultimate representative.”
Barkat is not impressed by such statements. Talking about his alliance with religious Zionist Jews, he said, “I have fought side by side with them. My national perception is similar to theirs and they can see what I have done in the field. They realize I am promoting the unity of Jerusalem.”
However, one can think of other explanations. Barkat has shown his loyalty to the religious Zionist settlement agenda. Despite the opposition of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and the legal adviser to the Jerusalem Municipality, Yossi Havilio, Barkat refused to order the eviction of the Jewish settlers who had taken up residence in Beit Yonatan, an apartment building in East Jerusalem’s predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan. Furthermore, Barkat helped push forward a major construction project of the right-wing organization Elad. He has also openly come out in favor of the nomination of a religious Zionist rabbi for the post of chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Another reason for the religious Zionist support for Barkat is its pluralistic nature and its fears that Leon is being supported by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Leon’s close ties with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri are a red flag in the eyes of many religious Zionists in Jerusalem. In a recent radio interview, Deri declared, “It took a while before we managed to persuade him [Leon]; he showed no desire whatsoever to enter the mayoral race.” Trying to avoid this bear hug from Shas, Leon, for his part, has said, “Many people spoke to me, asking asked me to run.”
A senior figure in the religious Zionist community told Haaretz: “Most of [Jerusalem’s Religious Zionist Jews] will vote for Barkat. They know him and they have seen he is not anti-religious. He is closer to us than Moshe Leon, who might end up being navigated by the ultra-Orthodox.”