Three Ways the Jerusalem Elections Will Impact Israel, the Mideast and the Jewish World

In Jerusalem, voters will be forced to choose between ultra-Orthodox and secular, Lieberman and Netanyahu, diplomacy and isolation.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It's tempting to dismiss the local elections Tuesday in Jerusalem as irrelevant on anything but the local stage. Indeed, as irrelevant for anyone who does not live in West Jerusalem as a third of the city's electorate, the Palestinians living across the Green Line will boycott the polls as they have in every election, national and municipal, since they were forced to accept Israeli citizenship after the Six Day War in 1967.

Jerusalem's fate will be decided ultimately in the negotiating room between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership. As it is, both leading candidates for mayor, the incumbent Nir Barkat and his challenger Moshe Leon, are right-wingers with warm ties to the religious settler organizations, who support building new Jewish neighborhoods east of the Green Line and on-record at least, and are adamant opponents to dividing the city in any future peace agreement.

However the identity of the man sitting in the office with the three-way view on the sixth floor in Safra Square could have major implications for Israel, the region and the Jewish world. Here are three reasons why.

1. The mayor or Jerusalem holds a large box of matches very close to the biggest keg of gunpowder at heart of the Middle East. And while some of the planning powers are still held by the Housing Ministry, City Hall has considerable leverage in planning affairs. The government can block new building across the Green Line, as it is doing now unofficially as part of the quiet assurances to the Obama Administration that allowed the launch of the current round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but the mayor can mobilize public opinion and use the media to create significant pressure to build in "our eternal and united capital."

Nir Barkat while paying lip-service to Israel's right to build in all parts of Jerusalem has mainly remained silent on this in recent months, coordinating closely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently anxious to avoid any altercations with the Americans.

But while Barkat is a team-player and understands Netanyahu's diplomatic necessities, Moshe Leon is the protégé of Avigdor Lieberman, who drafted the accountant from Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim into the campaign and is beholden only to him. Lieberman is no longer in government and has an agenda of his own, one that could very likely include in the near future extreme acts of provocation towards the Palestinians and the international community.

While Barkat is hardly a dream candidate for the left-wing, there is a reason why they have decided not to field anyone against him – the fear of having Lieberman's representative sitting by the gunpowder. Lieberman is also the second reason Tuesday's elections matter.

2. The former foreign minister and Yisrael Beiteinu leader has put an enormous amount of political capital on Moshe Leon's candidacy, including defying Netanyahu who wanted Likud to back Barkat and as result has remained silent over his preference (though the Netanyahu-supporting newspaper Israel Hayom has made it clear that Barkat is the favored candidate). If Leon fails, as the polls now suggest, it will be a massive blow to Lieberman's standing. Two weeks later is the ruling in his breach of trust case, a conviction could force him out of politics for at least seven years, which will make it very difficult for him to maintain control of his party, even behind the scenes.

On the other hand, a Leon victory followed by an acquittal will see Lieberman back with a vengeance. Either way, it could spell the end of Netanyahu's present coalition.

In a rare moment of candor last week, Shas Leader and co-sponsor of Leon, told listeners of a Haredi radio station that their only hope of dislodging Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid from the coalition and the return of the ultra-Orthodox parties to government was through cooperation with Lieberman who controls a third of the Likud-Beiteinu MKs. Shas chairman Aryeh Deri is right: The lack of unity evident within the Haredi community in the run-up to these local elections is disastrous for them, and not only in politics.

3. Five years ago, Nir Barkat won his first term through a combination of two factors. The normally apathetic secular voters in Jerusalem flocked to the polls as a result of a campaign that convinced them it was there last chance to save Jerusalem from an ultra-Orthodox takeover, while the normally uniform Haredi voting bloc split, with at least one large Hassidic court refusing to support United Torah Judaism's candidate, Meir Porush. This year, they are further splintered.

While the kippa-wearing Leon has been endorsed by Shas and by some of the Ashkenazi rabbis, he is by no means ensured of the entire Haredi vote. The "Lithuanian" leadership is split between Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (who has called upon his followers to vote for Leon) and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach who is fielding his own candidate who has no hope of winning the elections but will receive thousands of votes that otherwise would have gone to Leon.

Deri has pulled out all the stops, repeatedly announcing that by voting for Leon, believers will be "fulfilling Maran's (the title of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef) wishes" but it is unclear how powerful the call to Shas' traditional voters will be without a live Rabbi Yosef calling upon them to vote.

As a result of the disunity among the Haredim, there are no less than four ultra-Orthodox parties running in the elections for city council.

A second win for the "secular" candidate Barkat and diminished returns for Haredi parties in the council due to the split vote will not in itself change the demographics of Jerusalem but it will provide both a moral boost for the "pluralistic" streams in the city and make it easier for them to access municipal funding which can be crucial to the viability of a small community.

In recent years, Jerusalem has become a lively laboratory for every new type of egalitarian, non-sectarian, modern-Orthodox, non-Orthodox , grassroots, progressive and liberal strand of Judaism. Of course, this isn't going on just in Jerusalem but around Israel and in other parts of the Jewish world, and yet Jerusalem remains a hub of this religious ferment and many of the candidates for the council are closely involved with this new wave of local communities. The ourcome of Tuesday's election could have a deep affect on the future of Jewish pluralism, not only in Jerusalem.

Moshe Leon and Nir Barkat.Credit: Ilya Melnikov, Emil Salman
The billboards at the entrance to Har Homa, South Jerusalem, supported Moshe Leon, left, and Nir Barkat for mayor. But neither candidate succeeded in uniting the city's fractious tribes.Credit: Ilene Prusher

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