Haredi vs. Secular: Who Will Succeed Nir Barkat as Jerusalem's Mayor?

Only three candidates are considered to have chance: Moshe Leon, who's close to Lieberman, the ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, and a 35-year-old pluralist

Outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at the Western Wall in 2014.
Emil salman

The 2018 election in Jerusalem will again be a battle between the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox camps, assuming that as in the past 50 years, the Palestinians once again will not be a factor.

The three realistic mayoral candidates are accountant Moshe Leon, who is politically close to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and was Benjamin Netanyahu’s director general in his first term. Five years ago Leon tried to beat Nir Barkat through agreements with the Haredim and support from Lieberman and Shas Chairman Arye Dery. But he suffered from lack of political experience, lack of familiarity with the city and Barkat’s partial success among the Haredim.

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Leon decided to remain in Jerusalem after the election, continued in the city council and later became a member of the municipal coalition. But he was not very active, and seems to have invested his efforts in maintaining good relations with everyone in advance of the coming election.

Leon wants to form a broad coalition of Haredim, non-Haredi religious people and the secular community. But the rift between his patron, Lieberman, and the Haredim, mainly surrounding the draft and opening grocery stores on Shabbat, may ruin his plans.

Some believe that the quarrel with Lieberman is not serious and the Haredim will renew their alliance with him. If the Haredim don’t have a candidate and Leon receives votes from the religious public and from traditional Likud members, he has a reasonable chance of winning.

But his hopes about the Haredim may be shattered if their leadership decides to stand their own candidate – almost certainly UTJ Deputy Mayor Yossi Deutsch. Deutsch is a Slonim Hasid from Agudath Israel and a protégé of Meir Porush, who headed Haredi politics in Jerusalem for decades and lost to Barkat in 2008. Although he has spoken often about the Shabbat battles and the shortage of housing for Haredim he is not considered a belligerent Haredi advocate. He has yet to declare his candidacy, but the Haredim usually wait for the last moment on the assumption that the power of the rabbis spares the need for a long campaign. This time they will avoid repeating the mistake of a split and create a united front.

The third realistic candidate is Ofer Berkovitch, chairman of Hitorerut, who led his faction to success in the previous election, and is considered the head of the pluralist camp. He resigned as deputy mayor in September due to growing differences with Barkat. Although he can mobilize the secularists, that’s not enough. If there is a Haredi and a secular candidate, the religious Zionist and traditional communities will decide the election. Berkovitch’s greatest drawback: He’s only 35, and is considered inexperienced.

There are other candidates who probably don’t stand a chance. It’s possible that an outsider – a minister, senior MK or general – could win the race. Meanwhile the job of mayor of Jerusalem is not considered politically attractive.