Analysis

For Once, Israel’s Local Elections Matter to Netanyahu and National Politics

Long-standing incumbents in some of Israel’s biggest cities could be ousted Tuesday, with the ultra-Orthodox bloc divided and Likudniks going against the wishes of their leader. Is it the shape of things to come in 2019?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara Netanyahu voting in the local elections at a polling station in Jerusalem, October 30, 2018.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Tuesday’s local elections are not Israel’s version of the midterms. They are not even similar to local and regional elections in most Western democracies, where the national parties can use the results as a barometer of their popularity.

In most cities and local governments in Israel, the majority of slates competing for seats are formed on an ad-hoc basis, and at most are only loosely aligned with national parties. Most mayoral candidates are independent, and while they vie for the endorsement of national leaders, whether they win or lose does not necessarily reflect on those who backed them.

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For all these reasons, there are usually few takeaways about national politics to be gleaned from local elections. For example, what is expected to be a close race between Tel Aviv’s mayor of 20 years, Ron Huldai, and his protégé-turned-nemesis Asaf Zamir, has little relevance outside of the city – even though Huldai is a member of the Labor Party.

Another Labor member, the popular incumbent Ruvik Danilovich, is almost certain to win a third term as mayor of Be’er Sheva by a landslide, despite Labor having received only 12 percent of the vote in the national election there in 2015. It won’t be a sign of an improvement in the party’s sagging prospects.

That said, local elections in Israel do sometimes indicate important and wider political trends. One such election took place in 1993, when two things happened that were important harbingers for the future.

At the time, the national parties were more involved in local elections. The young leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been elected Likud chairman eight months earlier and was doing badly in the polls. Yitzhak Rabin’s government, borne on the initial popularity of the Oslo process, seemed confident of wiping Likud out.

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The right-wing party was also in deep debt and had just gone through a major round of budget slashing and firing key employees. But Netanyahu needed to prove himself to his skeptical party colleagues and threw himself into the local campaigns, raising money for candidates and setting up a centralized apparatus that offered services like advertising for Likud slates across the country.

It worked, and in dozens of local races – including the most prestigious ones in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – Likud unexpectedly beat Labor’s lackadaisical operation. But Rabin and Shimon Peres shrugged it off, instead of taking note of how Netanyahu was capable of making up for his party’s shortcomings by transforming it into a lean campaign machine.

WRIT LARGE: A giant poster campaign for Ofer Berkovitch as mayor of Jerusalem.
עיצוב: אייל גור - ק

The most humiliating of Labor’s losses was Jerusalem, where Rabin had personally urged the city’s 82-year-old mayor of three decades, Teddy Kollek, to run one last time. Kollek was felled by Likud’s Ehud Olmert, who, on the eve of the election, had reached an agreement for the ultra-Orthodox parties to pull their candidate out and join him. It was an epochal moment in Haredi politics.

Before that, the ultra-Orthodox parties had maneuvered between Likud and Labor, driving hard bargains after each election. Jerusalem 1993 was the sealing of their deal with the right-wing – and particularly with Netanyahu, who would count on the small group of men who ran Haredi politics to be his loyal allies for the next 25 years.

In 1996, this time in a national election in which he went head to head with Labor’s complacent Peres, Netanyahu would again prove what a devastatingly efficient campaigner he is and utilize his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox to the maximum.

Now, 2018 could turn out to be the rare local election that signals a generational shift in Israeli politics.

Even before we know the results, two major trends are occurring. First, the leaderships of the main ultra-Orthodox parties which succeeded in coordinating electoral strategy on the local and national levels since the early 1990s have dissolved.

There are at least five Haredi blocs: the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael; the “Lithuanian” Degel Hatorah; the breakaway “Lithuanian” Peleg Yerushalmi; the Mizrahi Shas party and the breakaway group from it, Yachad. And all are at war with each other. In Jerusalem alone, the Haredi blocs are supporting three different candidates for mayor.

The breakdown of ultra-Orthodox politics will almost certainly influence next year’s national election and could quite likely deny Netanyahu the crucial alliance he needs for forming a strong coalition – one that will stick by him once he is inevitably indicted for corruption.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has more immediate troubles: The wheels are falling off his formidable election machine.

This is partly due to the fact that for years he has failed to invest in Likud’s local operations, but also to a weakening of his authority. In Jerusalem, Minister Zeev Elkin is running as Likud’s candidate without the support of the local party branch and with Netanyahu’s grudging endorsement.

In other big cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva, Likud doesn’t even have a candidate. In some smaller cities, like Bat Yam, there are two Likud candidates. And in others that have a strong Likud voter base, Netanyahu’s favored candidates – such as MK Jackie Levy in Beit She’an – are far from assured of victory.

Cracks are beginning to show at every level, with branch chairmen, MKs and ministers publicly coming out in favor of candidates who Netanyahu refused to endorse.

It’s nowhere near a collapse of his authority, but it’s the start of Likud beginning to prepare itself for the succession battle on the day Netanyahu is forced to leave. All this is happening even before we know the results (polls close at 22:00 local time).

Here is another scenario that may arise from the 2018 local elections. If the young secular centrist Ofer Berkovitch pulls off a victory in Jerusalem, Huldai succumbs to Zamir in Tel Aviv and newcomer Laborite Einat Kalisch Rotem turfs out Mayor Yona Yahav in Haifa – and all these outcomes are within the realms of possibility – it may create a wave of anti-incumbency that could sustain itself into next year’s national election and hit the biggest incumbent of them all.