Jerusalem Mayoral Candidate Moshe Leon Hopes to Replicate Olmert's Success

If secular voters stay at home while the ultra-Orthodox unite behind him, Leon has a shot at becoming mayor, just as Olmert did two decades ago.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Moshe Leon is hoping the formula that brought Ehud Olmert to power in the Jerusalem municipal elections of 1993 will work again for him next week.

A couple of days before the '93 local elections, incumbent Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek was calm. The polls predicted he would trounce his rival - Likud candidate Ehud Olmert. The participation of an ultra-Orthodox candidate, Meir Porush, in the elections promised to split the Haredi vote, to Kollek's advantage. On Sunday Kollek was still sitting pretty, but on the Monday afternoon - 14 hours before the polls opened - the die was cast. Porush stepped down and Haredi public switched their support to Olmert, voting for him en masse. The secular public remained indifferent and Olmert won by 25,000 votes.

This time, too, a secular mayor is running against a Likud candidate supported by a large Haredi bloc. This time, too, a Haredi candidate, Haim Epstein, is running and the polls predict a victory for the incumbent, Nir Barkat.

A survey conducted by Panel Project for local newspaper Kol Ha’ir predicts Barkat will receive 47 percent of the votes, while Leon will receive 28 percent and Epstein 3.1 percent. If Epstein withdraws from the race, the votes will be split between Barkat (50.7%) and Leon (31.5%).

A survey published in Globes yesterday forecast a smaller advantage for Barkat - 47 percent compared to 41 percent for Leon. In both surveys, a considerable number of voters hadn't decided yet - 17 percent in Kol Ha’ir's survey and 9 percent in the Globes survey. If these voters support Leon, it will be a close race and the '93 scenario may repeat itself.

But much has changed in Jerusalem since 1993. Neither the ultra-Orthodox nor the secular communities are the same. That's what Barkat is counting on.

Leon and his big-hitting backer, Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), have been telling everyone that Leon's victory is assured. Leon, they say, has a solid Haredi bloc of 90,000 votes. The remaining 30,000 votes to seal his victory will come from religious-Zionist people because of the kippa on his head; Russian speakers, because Lieberman supports him; Likud voters, because he heads the Likud list; Mizrahim, because of Leon's ethnic origin; and various voters who are disillusioned with Barkat.

But many things have gone wrong on the way. The ultra-Orthodox have not committed themselves as a bloc yet. The deal Olmert made 20 years ago with a handful of Haredi functionaries and rabbis wouldn't work today without the agreement of dozens of functionaries and equally as many rabbis. The Haredim's blind obedience to their rabbis is not assured, either.

So far Leon has the support of Shas and Degel Hatorah's rabbis. The main battle now centers on Epstein. Barkat's people are trying to persuade him and his rabbis not to step down. The Hasidic Gerrer and Viznitz rebbes are considering ordering their people not to vote for Leon, and perhaps even to vote for Barkat.

Leon has other problems as well. Likud in Jerusalem has split and parts of it have switched their support to Barkat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a point of ignoring Leon, and the religious-Zionists' leaders support Barkat.

And all the Jerusalemites - Ashkenazim and Mizrahim as one - don't like the fact that Leon moved to Jerusalem only to qualify for the elections. More than one eyebrow was raised last week at Leon's display of ignorance in an interview with the Walla website. The candidate didn't know what Mifgash Hasheikh, a veteran Jerusalem restaurant, was. Even worse, he didn't know that in the city he wants to be mayor of, there are cinemas open on Friday night.

In the past 20 years, the relations between the secular and Haredi community have been the main issue in the municipal elections. These issues focused on opening cinemas on weekends, closing roads, and neighborhoods becoming ultra-Orthodox. This time, this issue has all but disappeared. This is because Leon, who relies on the ultra-Orthodox vote, did not want to remind his non-Haredi voters of this. Barkat, who was sure of the secular voters' support for lack of another candidate, was reluctant to raise the issue in the hope of gaining a few thousand Haredi votes.

Shahar Ilan, former journalist and deputy CEO of Hiddush (an NGO for religious freedom and equality), says Barkat has taken a considerable risk by deciding not to raise the issue. Nothing can bring secular voters to the polls en masse like the city's becoming increasingly ultra-Orthodox, he says. So while Barkat may win a few thousand Haredi votes, he could lose many more votes of indifferent secular voters.

The secular public, which voted as one for Barkat in the previous election, could sink back into indifference and let Leon and the ultra-Orthodox win, says Ilan.

Barkat's victory in 2008 showed that a secular candidate could trounce an ultra-Orthodox one, despite the high Haredi turnout at the polls. This restored the secular community's confidence and feeling that Jerusalem is its home, too.

However, this feeling of strength could also lead to apathy. Barkat's campaign people fear that the endless stream of jokes about Leon, who has already been trounced on Facebook, will make the secular voters believe the battle has already been won and not bother to go to the polls.

Campaign leaders have spared no effort in trying to paper over the wide crack that separates the secular and Haredi communities. Nonetheless, the election results will hinge on just two things - whether the Haredim unite behind Leon, and whether the secular voters stay at home. If both these things happen, Leon can win.

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