Analysis

Netanyahu’s Candidate Lags but Jerusalem Mayoral Race Is Far From Over

Cabinet member Zeev Elkin now appears to be trailing Moshe Leon, who has also played a key role for the prime minister

Moshe Leon voting in the 2013 mayoral race in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

The decision by the spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties Degel Hatorah and Shas to support Moshe Leon for Jerusalem mayor has made him the leading candidate. But the race is far from over.

As things stand now, the ultra-Orthodox candidate Yossi Daitch is expected drop out, leaving three main candidates: Leon, Zeev Elkin – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidate – and Ofer Berkovitch, a former deputy mayor.

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Leon – a former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu – was the first to announce his candidacy. In fact, he started running the moment he lost to incumbent Nir Barkat five years ago. Despite his rivals’ claims, he didn’t leave Jerusalem and move back to Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim after the race; he remained a council member.

Leon told anyone who would listen that his great dream was to be mayor. But in recent months his dream seemed to be fading. The first blow was when Elkin joined the fray; then Netanyahu pledged his support for Elkin, who is both environment minister and Jerusalem affairs minister. In recent polls Leon wasn’t even among the three leading candidates, and many observers saw his campaign as a lost cause.

But Leon forged on, maintaining that things would sort themselves out. Maybe he knew what was going on behind the scenes, in the ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ entourages and in the ultra-Orthodox politicians’ offices. His main rival for the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, voter was Daitch, a deputy mayor representing Agudat Yisrael, who had yet to announce his candidacy but was heavily canvassing the Haredi world’s decision-makers.

Jerusalem mayoral candidates Zeev Elkin and Moshe Lion at a ceremony marking the launch of a new Jewish heritage center in East Jerusalem, August 2018.
Emil Salman

Daitch obtained the support of both his party, Agudat Yisrael, and Degel Hatorah’s so-called Lithuanian, non-Hasidic rabbis in Jerusalem, but failed to secure the support of Bnei Brak’s Lithuanian rabbis or Shas. In recent days he has displayed great confidence, and his associates have said he would win Degel Hatorah’s support in a matter of days. After that Shas would presumably be forced to join up and form a united Haredi bloc.

But hours before Yom Kippur began Tuesday evening, it seemed the wheel had turned and Leon surprisingly managed to secure the support of the two large Haredi parties in Jerusalem – Degel Hatorah and Shas. This put Leon back in the mix. It also means that the ultra-Orthodox vote has split, because Agudat Yisrael’s constituents feel their candidate has been betrayed by the Lithuanian leadership and are now out for revenge.

Political observers are speculating that Agudat Yisrael may now support Aliza Bloch, the non-Haredi candidate in the nearby city of Beit Shemesh. More likely, Agudat Yisrael will support Leon’s archrival Elkin. That’s why despite Leon’s recent success, the race in Jerusalem is far from over.

The third major candidate, Berkovitch, may also benefit from the latest developments, as the rabbis’ support for Leon leaves Berkovitch as the only candidate not seeking the rabbis’ support. Also, the split in the ultra-Orthodox camp could catapult Berkovitch to the second round, if there is one.