Analysis

This Year's Mayoral Race in Jerusalem Is All About the Religious Zionists

In past elections, the ultra-Orthodox held sway; this time, secular and religious — but not Haredi — voters are getting behind candidates from the knitted-kippa crowd

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

In the current public discourse over elections in Jerusalem, as in all previous elections since the time of Mayor Teddy Kollek, there seems to be only one major question: Will the ultra-Orthodox be able to capture the mayor’s seat? There are usually two main camps party to the debate: the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. But a closer look reveals that the forces at work are much more complex, and that religious Zionist Jerusalemites hold the key to victory. This situation places the candidates before a significant difficulty: Religious Zionists are a varied group, from the extreme-right, Kahanist wing to liberal Orthodox people, many of whom took part in the Gay Pride Parade two weeks ago.

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In the two previous election campaigns, the secular mayor, Nir Barkat, was able to maintain his alliance with the religious Zionists, and that assured his victory. Now, secular Jerusalemites, and a good many religious ones, fear that a win by an ultra-Orthodox candidate will speed up the process of increased ultra-Orthodox presence in secular neighborhoods and compromise achievements reached regarding Sabbath observance in public spaces in Jerusalem. The ultra-Orthodox, for their part, see the election as a golden opportunity to take control of Jerusalem after a decade under Barkat – especially as a chance to solve their serious housing and classroom shortage. But ultra-Orthodox public figures also fear defeat and speak openly about their preference for a mayor who was dependent on their votes rather than an ultra-Orthodox mayor who would be under constant assault and would have to take steps such as funding the Gay Pride Parade or granting licenses to businesses that operate on the Sabbath.

As of today, the opinion polls predict a possible win for three of the eight candidates. But none of the three can be complacent: The road to the post-Barkat mayoralty is still a very winding one.

>> Jerusalem's multiple wannabe mayors could split the secular vote | Analysis

According to a survey published last week by the Midgam Research Institute, the three realistic candidates are the ultra-Orthodox Deputy Mayor Yossi Deutsch, the Orthodox, right-wing Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin and the young, secular chairman of the grassroots Jerusalem secular citizens’ organization Wake-Up Jerusalem, former deputy mayor Ofer Berkovitch. Each would receive between 21 percent and 23 percent of the vote. Lagging behind them are Moshe Lion with 11 percent, former city councilwoman Rachel Azaria with 6 percent, and former municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio, with 4 percent.

The complexity of the power plays and the questions on the agenda leave plenty of room for the candidates and their people to propose various scenarios.

Deutsch’s scenario is supposedly simple. All he has to do on the first round is to win the broad support of all ultra-Orthodox voters, Sephardic Orthodox Shas voters and the Jerusalem branch of the ultra-Orthodox non-Hassidic, or Lithuanian, vote, and make sure that the ultra-Orthodox get out and vote in large numbers. He doesn’t have that yet. The only political body that has come out in support of him so far is the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael. Shas has not stated its preference, and the Jerusalem Lithuanian people, rebelling against the mainstream Lithuanian group, are running their own candidate, Moshe Epstein. Moshe Lion, who in the past has won almost wall-to-wall ultra-Orthodox support, is also cutting into that electorate’s support, and Interior Minister Arye Dery, a close associate of Lion’s, is still trying to garner ultra-Orthodox support for his candidate.

But even full ultra-Orthodox unity doesn’t promise victory to Deutsch. The upcoming elections will be the first in Jerusalem to be held on a day on which people can take the day off from work. That means that secular and religious voters who are gainfully employed will be able to close the gap in voting rates (in the previous elections, 10 percent more ultra-Orthodox voters went to the polls), and block the election of the ultra-Orthodox candidate.

Elkin’s electorate is a mixture of secular, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemites. In recent weeks Elkin seems to have managed to come out as a leading candidate. He has garnered Mayor Barkat’s support (to the disappointment of Lion, who said Barkat had promised to back him), late but still important support from the prime minister, and as of Friday, support by Knesset coalition whip MK David Amsalem, who had been considering running himself. So even if the local Likud branch does not back him, Elkin can still be assured support by Likud voters in the capital, and they are many.

Elkin has also obtained the support of prominent religious Zionists, among them Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, chairman of the fairly liberal Orthodox group Tzohar; religious Zionists in general and ultra-Orthodox Zionist rabbis Dov Lior and Shlomo Aviner. They are not necessarily waiting for their rabbinic sages to tell them who to vote for.

And in a second round?

According to a poll by Channel 2, if Elkin and Deutsch face off in a second round against Berkovitch, Elkin would win fairly handily. His problem is that to reach the second round, he needs to defeat Berkovitch and weaken Lion, to come out as the only right-wing Orthodox candidate. And Lion shows no signs of leaving that area vacant.

As the race moves ahead, Elkin is expected to use the strategic logic of the non-ultra-Orthodox camp in the city, and explain that even if he is not the liberal left’s dream candidate, he would be better for them than an ultra-Orthodox mayor. According to Elkin’s close associates, the survey shows that he is the only non-ultra-Orthodox candidate that can win, because if there is a second round, both Berkovitch and Lion will certainly lose to Deutsch.

In fact, according to the survey, Berkovitch would beat Deutsch in a second round, but the gap would be small. Assuming that in the second round the voting rate goes down (there’s no day off from work), the ultra-Orthodox chance of closing that ap is high.

Berkovitch’s people, of course, reject this scenario. Berkovitch, the youngest candidate and the only secular one among the realistic runners, was considered early in the race as the underdog, but the survey predicted him coming in first, within limitations of statistical error.

But this scenario still puts him far from the mayor’s chair. The assumption is that the other two candidates for the secular and pluralistic vote in the city, Rachel Azaria and Yossi Havilio, will finally realize they are hurting their electorate, and drop out. In the next phase, Berkovitch hopes to create momentum around his candidacy and pull in more support from the religious Zionists and undecided voters. Those two groups, he hopes, will put him over the 40 percent he needs in the first round. The problem is that Havilio and Azaria are showing no signs of retreating, and even if they do, the chance that Berkovitch will beat Elkin and Deutsch seems slim. If Berkovitch makes it to a second round, he should hope he will be facing off against Deutsch, and that the secular and mainstream religious voters in Jerusalem will stand behind him and go to the polls again in large numbers – which is not easy.

People around Azaria say that Berkovitch has gone as far as he can, and only Azaria, an Orthodox woman who knows Jerusalem well, can expand the boundaries of the pluralistic camp and bring in votes from religious people and even some modern Orthodox voters. Havilio has proposed to Azaria and Berkovitch that they conduct a joint opinion poll a month before the election to determine which of the three should drop out to strengthen the chances of a pluralistic candidate. They have not yet responded to the idea.

Lion, who in the previous elections managed to rock Barkat’s chair, doubtless imagined these days differently. His only chance to get back in the race is if Deutsch fails and he, Lion, becomes the ultra-Orthodox candidate. This week Lion’s people said the survey published was “fake” and unreliable.

Of course, there’s another electoral bloc in Jerusalem, which is utterly invisible – the Palestinians. They constitute 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population, which means they have the power to dramatically alter the balance of forces in City Hall. Despite this, and although new voices have been heard lately, it seems that the political and social taboo against their voting is not about to break. The Palestinian candidate, Ramadan Dabash, a community leader from Sur Baher, has meanwhile gone further than any other Palestinian candidate in history. Despite threats and pressure, he refuses to back out, but as expected, he has encountered serious opposition from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

On the next mayor’s desk

The next mayor of Jerusalem will apparently get to cut the ribbon on some of the biggest projects in the country. But before that happens, the victor will encounter strong opposition from residents, green organizations and at least part of the international community.

The projects expected to substantially impact Jerusalem are the fast train to Tel Aviv, whose completion is nowhere in sight and whose influence cannot be predicted. Extensive work is already underway throughout the city for more light rail lines – one of these has already sparked sharp resistance from residents who fear for the future of the German Colony. Plans to expand the capital onto the green hills to the west has roused major protest and criticism by a good many of the mayoral candidates. Then there’s the plan to build a new access road to the capital, road 16, over which residents of the Givat Mordechai neighborhood in western Jerusalam are very worried.

Meanwhile, last week an umbrella agreement was signed between the Jerusalem municipality and the Israel Lands Authority for the development of the capital in the coming decades. The agreement calls for the construction of 20,000 housing units, 8,000 of which will come under the aegis of urban renewal as part of Master Plan 38 (refurbishing apartments while making them earthquake safe). It was also agreed to allocate a total of three million square meters of land for employment, commerce and hotels.

The new projects are expected to be built at the entrance to the city, on a roofed -over section of Begin Boulevard, in the Har Hotzvim industrial zone, Pisgat Zeev and other sites. Barkat said of the agreement that it marked “a historic day in the construction of Jerusalem and for its future.” Unprecedented in its scope and together with the Israel Lands Authority, he declared it would benefit Jerusalem and Israel in general.