Jerusalem: The World's Most Difficult City, and the Worst Candidates to Run It Ever

Who's the least damaging candidate I can vote for? Bibi's carpetbagger, a far-right political hack, a professional in hock to ultra-Orthodox rabbis or a rank amateur?

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A general view taken from the Mount of Olives shows Jerusalem's Old City and the Abbey of the Dormition, as the sun sets during a sand haze. October 18, 2018
A general view taken from the Mount of Olives shows Jerusalem's Old City and the Abbey of the Dormition, as the sun sets during a sand haze. October 18, 2018Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

This was going to be one of those very rare elections when I could have felt that I was voting for someone I trusted, and not just for the lesser of evils. My old friend Rachel Azaria was running for mayor of Jerusalem

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I’ve known Rachel for nearly 20 years, back in the days when she was an environmental campaigner and ran an NGO lobbying for the rights of women fighting their freedom in rabbinical family courts. Since then she served as council member, deputy mayor and Knesset member, including chairing the Knesset’s reforms committee.

Rachel Azaria, who withdrew from Jerusalem's mayoral race.Credit: Emil Salman

Not only did she have the potential to be an excellent mayor, but it’s about time Jerusalem, or any of Israel’s major cities for that matter, had a woman as mayor.

But Rachel’s campaign was ill-timed, badly run, her polling dismal and last month she had little choice but to drop out of the race.

For a few days, I had another exciting candidate to vote for. Aziz Abu Sarah was planning to run, and though his chances, with the Palestinians of Jerusalem still boycotting the election, were virtually nil, the act of voting in solidarity with over a third of the city’s residents, so discriminated against in city services, was an appealing bit of virtue signaling.

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But Abu Sarah also dropped out before he even formally became a candidate. Whether due to pressure from Israeli authorities or Palestinian nationalists, both of which were significant, will remain unclear. Whatever the reason, I am now left with four boring candidates, none of whom make me in the least bit excited about voting on Tuesday.

Aziz Abu Sarah, who withdrew from the Jerusalem mayor raceCredit: Emil Salman

Actually that’s not entirely true. There is one who I can get somewhat excited about, but I’ll get to him in a moment. 

Of course, voting while holding your nose is a totally normal experience in any democracy. After all, I voted for Nir Barkat in the last three mayoral elections, simply because the alternatives were even worse. So who is the last man I can stand this time around?

In the process of elimination, crossing off the first two names on the list is easy. Moshe Leon and Zeev Elkin are carpetbaggers whom no self-respecting Jerusalemite should ever consider voting for.

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To be fair, if the only consideration was managerial and financial skills, the wily accountant Leon, once the inscrutable boss of Netanyahu’s prime minister’s office and an expert at getting budgets through the government system, would probably be the best of the candidates at balancing the city’s budget and extracting funding from the Treasury for new housing projects.

Moshe Leon, candidate for mayor of JerusalemCredit: Emil Salman

But five years since he mysteriously moved from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim to the capital, to become a proxy for the two most corrupt men in Israeli politics  Avigdor Lieberman and Arye Dery, and whatever dark deals they hope to make with their contractor friends, we still have no idea why he’s here. The fact that Lieberman and Dery are going to such lengths to try and make him mayor is by itself a disqualifying factor.

Elkin is Netanyahu’s candidate, who arrived only three months ago from his West Bank settlement. His connections may be slightly less corrupt than Leon’s but he doesn’t even have any qualifications - no experience in local government, no real knowledge of Jerusalem’s affairs, except those of the Hebrew University where he spent a few years working on his doctorate and as a junior lecturer.

He failed to distinguish himself in the minor government ministries he led, no major program or reforms to his name. He’s a political hack with far-right positions who brings nothing to Jerusalem to make up for being an out-of-towner.

Ze'ev Elkin, candidate for mayor of JerusalemCredit: Emil Salman

Which leaves us with the only two real Jerusalemites in running, Ofer Berkovitch and Yossi Daitch

I’d like to get excited by Berkovitch. It’s not often a 35 year-old is so close to winning such a senior post. In many ways, he’s the kind of activist I wish there were much more of in Jerusalem’s local politics. One who is truly connected to the neighborhoods he grew up in and represents and has spent his career organizing young people and standing up for local issues.

Plus, Berkovich is the only secular candidate and as such, his victory would be an important moral boost for the shrinking community which still pays most of the city taxes. Berkovich is the only candidate standing up for anything remotely resembling pluralist values (he was the only one of the four to say quite simply that institutionally racist local soccer club Beitar Jerusalem should have no problem signing up an Arab player).

But everything I’ve seen of Berkovitch and heard from those who’ve worked with him in the seven and a half years he spent on the city council leads me to believe he is far from ready to be Jerusalem’s mayor, if he ever will be.

A campaign poster for candidate Ofer Berkovitch. For now, the secular contender is still No. 1 in the polls.Credit: Emil Salman

He has fallen out with many of his past partners, has no experience of working on large and complex projects and his dealings with government departments, a key part of the mayor’s job, have been characterized by a lack of understanding and cooperation on his part. I would never rule him out just because of his age, but he simply doesn’t have the requisite skills or experience to run the most difficult city in the country, probably in the world.

He simply isn’t up to snuff. I could vote for Berkovitch, only in the absence of a serious candidate.

And in Yossi Daitch there is such a candidate. Daitch, who represents the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party in the city council, has spent over two decades in local government; he’s worked at different levels on public housing, urban renewal and employment training programs, and on Jerusalem city council since 2005 he’s been both deputy and vice mayor. He’s got a record of building coalitions and working well with national government.

Based on his personal qualities and experience, Daitch is the perfect candidate.

A campaign sticker depicting ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidate in Jerusalem's mayoral election Yossi Daitsh is seen on a street pole in Jerusalem. October 18, 2018Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

I’ve never actually been friends with him, but I’ve known him for over 20 years, since I began my career as a religious affairs reporter on a local weekly, and have always found him to be an honest, decent and hard-working public servant. The kind of local politician who is actually busy working for his constituents. And no, I have no problem with voting for a Haredi man per se. Under different circumstances, I could actually get excited about voting for a man like Daitch.

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So why am I not writing a column endorsing Daitch whole-heartedly? Because sadly, even if I were to put the yellow piece of paper with the words "Yosef Daitch" printed on them in the ballot box on Tuesday, I wouldn’t actually be voting for him.

He could potentially be an excellent mayor and I believe that if it was up to him, he would know how to run City Hall for the benefit of all Jerusalem’s residents. But he can’t because he is only running for mayor after receiving the approval of the members of Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Greats, a bunch of old Hasidic rabbis who do not have the interests of Jerusalem at heart.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his pick for future finance minister, for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, February 23, 2015Credit: \ REUTERS

Daitch is no rebel. His list for the council is men-only, as all Agudat Yisrael’s lists always are. And while I believe that, personally, he would make different decision should he become mayor, he will have to follow the orders of his rabbis. And in a city like Jerusalem, where a large part of the mayor’s job is achieving a delicate balance between the interests and sensitivities of the disparate communities, I don’t want the rabbis’ proxy running things.

As it is the ultra-Orthodox parties have a stranglehold on the council. I need a mayor who can counteract their sectorial politics. I of course have the option of balancing my vote for Daitch with a vote for the left-wing Meretz party in the city council, but I fear that is insufficient.

I’ll vote Meretz for the council anyway, as a voice for the small remaining pluralist community in Jerusalem is crucial. But as I write this, five days to the election, I still have no clear idea who I’m voting for mayor.

I’ll probably remain stuck in my dilemma between an eminently suitable mayor, who is inextricably beholden to parochial fundamentalist rabbis, and a raw, callow candidate, who is at least a man of his own, until the very last moment.

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