New Mayors Tapped in Israeli Local Elections

Haifa's Einat Kalisch-Rotem to become first woman to lead a major Israeli city ■ Ron Huldai wins another term in Tel Aviv ■ Jerusalem heads into a second round ■ Dramatic increase in voter turnout

Einat Kalisch-Rotem in Haifa, October 30, 2018.
Rami Shllush

The results of the municipal elections held across Israel Tuesday included the first-ever female mayoral candidate elected to lead a major city in Israel.

Labor newcomer Einat Kalisch-Rotem beat incumbent mayor Yona Yahav, who headed the city of Haifa for the past 15 years. Kalisch-Rotem got 55 percent of the vote to Yahav's 37 percent.

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In a similar victory, Tal Ohana is the first woman to become mayor of the southern city of Yeruham with 59 percent of the votes.

Beit Shemesh elected Aliza Bloch,a religious-Zionist woman, over the incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor Moshe Abutbul.

Tel Aviv's long-standing mayor Ron Huldai celebrates election results in Tel Aviv, October 31, 2018
Moti Milrod

Jerusalem's closely watched race is heading into a second round with neither candidate reaching the requisite 40 percent. Moshe Leon and Ofer Berkovitch, who is the founder and chairman of a movement composed of both secular and Orthodox Jews, will face each other in the next round.

Tel Aviv's long-standing mayor Ron Huldai was reelected for another term while Tomer Glam beat incumbent mayor Itamar Shimoni in the race in Ashkelon.

Ten women were elected to head towns in Israel, an increase compared to the seven women chosen in 2013. 

Overall, 60 percent of those eligible to vote participated in the local elections, with four million people casting votes. This represents a 10 percent increase compared to the last elections in 2013. This year, municipal elections were declared a holiday in order to increase voter participation, which is also the standard in Israeli national elections. 

This is the first municipal elections in which prisoners are allowed to vote. 44 percent of the prisoners eligible to vote - 4,222 people - participated in the elections.

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The Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council in the north-Western Negev in Israel's south elected an unprecedented majority of women to its council, with six women elected out of the 11 council members. 

In the northern Israeli city of Nahariya, the mayor Jacky Sabag lost re-election after 29 years, calling voters "ungrateful." 

Tel Aviv trounces the anti-refugee candidates

Tel Aviv's Huldai will continue to another 5-year term after 20 years at the helm. His protégé-turned-nemesis Asaf Zamir, who served as his deputy mayor for the past decade before launching his own campaign, admitted defeat in the first round after receiving 34 percent of thevote compared with Huldai's 47 percent. Huldai's party won seven out of 31 seats, making it the largest party in the city council. Zamir's party won six seats and Assaf Harel, a newcomer to politics who also ran for mayor, won four seats, as did the Meretz party. Meretz was previously the largest party in the council but lost two seats in these elections. The new Yaffa Sheti party, representing Jaffa's Arabs, won one seat. 

Although a breakdown by neighborhood of the vote in Tel Aviv is not yet available, the results appear to show that the political forces that have been seeking the deportation of African asylum seekers were trounced at the ballot box. The local Likud party and a separate slate led by city council member Suzi Cohen Zemach fought to be seen as the representatives of long-time residents of south Tel Aviv, where most of the asylum seekers live and where the opposition to their presence is most prominent.

Cohen Zemach's party, who had the support of anti-migrant activist Sheffi Paz and her associates, attracted only 4,459 votes, short of what is necessary for even a single council seat. Likud, which garnered 8,154 votes, will see its representation on council cut from two seats to one. 

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Anachnu Ha'ir (We are the City) faction headed by Harel, which campaigned on a decidedly left-wing platform, will have four members on the new city council, including Shula Keshet, a resident of south Tel Aviv who led the campaign against the deportation of asylum seekers. The campaigns of the parties of the two leading candidates for mayor, Huldai and Zamir, also took a left-wing position against the expulsion of asylum seekers.

Mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch talks to media at a polling station during the municipal elections in Jerusalem, Oct. 30, 2018.
Oded Balilty, AP

Jerusalem still on the fence

In Jerusalem, none of the candidates reached the 40 percent threshold necessary to win the first round. Secular candidate, 35-year-old Ofer Berkovitch who founded and chairs the Hitorerut (Awakening) movement, gained 28 percent and will be running in a second round against Moshe Leon, who gained 32 percent. Leon, who won 10,000 votes more than his challenger Berkovitch, had the unofficial support of ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Arye Dery. The second round between the two is slated for November 13.

The ultra-Orthodox, together with the Zionist Orthodox party headed by settler activist Aryeh King, are slated to win the majority of seats in the council, 17 out of 31. The right-wing block will get five seats while the center-left block, which includes Hitorerut and Meretz, is slated to receive nine seats.

The Haredi candidate, Yossi Daitch, who represents Agudat Yisrael, and Zeev Elkin, the Likud candidate who currently serves in the government as Jerusalem affairs and environmental protection minister and received backing from Netanyahu, both lost the first round.

Daitch, who was backed by Hasidic voters, represents a Haredi party and a very conservative grand rabbi and Hasidic court that fought, for example, against forcing schools to admit girls of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

Mayoral candidate Moshe Leon at a polling station during the municipal elections in Jerusalem, Oct. 30, 2018.
Emil Salman

The leading candidate Leon, an accountant, was backed by the rabbinic leaders of the Degel Hatorah party, the non-Hasidic faction of United Torah Judaism, and Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party. 

The voting system in the municipal elections in Israel lets voters cast two ballots, one for mayor and for a political party - allowing them to split their vote. As a result, Leon, whose party received only 5,000 votes, is facing an unusual situation in Jerusalem, in which he currently leads the mayoral run with 32 percent of the votes, but his party is slated to win no seats in the council. 

The Jerusalem electorate was not enamored with Leon and didn't turn out to vote for him in his own right. Nearly all of the votes that he received in the first round were the product of a political deal that he made with the rabbis from United Torah Judaism's Degel Hatorah faction and from Shas, without which he would have had some of the poorest showing in the first round.

If Moshe Leon prevails in the second round of voting for mayor, ultra-Orthodox influence in Jerusalem will become more prominent and the city will be more inward-looking and less receptive to the demands of the city's diverse population. On the other hand, if Berkovitch wins the second round, he will be facing a contrarian city council and be forced to form a fragile council coalition. He will also find himself between a rock – in the form of his secular voters – and a hard place – in the form of his ultra-Orthodox political partners.

East Jerusalem votes - or does it?

Unlike in national elections, permanent residents – and not only Israeli citizens – can vote in municipal elections. This means that East Jerusalem residents can vote as well.

Ramadan Dabbash was the only Palestinian running for mayor of the city, with his Jerusalem for Jerusalemites party. Dabbash ran on a platform that emphasizes the importance of improving municipal services to Palestinian residents of the city.

East Jerusalem candidate Aziz Abu Sarah dropped out of the race about a month prior to elections due to pressure from both Israeli authorities and Palestinian nationalists. His party, Our Jerusalem, was running on an anti-occupation platform.

Both candidates were seeking to break through the traditional boycott of Israeli municipal elections by Palestinian Jerusalemites ever since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six-Day War and united the city under one municipal authority. In the last elections, in 2013, less than 2 percent of East Jerusalemites participated in the elections.

Turnout peaks in Nazareth, brawls in some Israeli-Arab towns

In Nazareth, voter turnout peaked at 80 percent, with incumbent Ali Salem winning the mayoral race with 63 percent of the vote. 

The Nazareth campaign was the most lively of any Israeli-Arab community. Three months prior to Election Day, Salem was thought to be unbeatable. Then came Walid Alfifi, a candidate from one of the most prominent and well-to-do families in the city, presenting a serious challenge. The Hadash party, which has controlled Nazareth city hall for more than three decades, did not run a mayoral candidate this time around, instead throwing its support to Alfifi. The heated mayoral contest descended into heated rhetoric on social media.

In a briefing about Tuesday's municipal elections in Israeli Arab communities in the north, an Israel Police spokesman said there had been disturbances in a number of locations in the wake of the election results. Cars were torched, stones were thrown, damage was caused to businesses and flares were fired, the spokesman said.

Cars were set on fire in the towns of Tur'an and Kafr Manda, where a suspect was arrested in connection with the car torching. Flares were also fired at people and buildings in Kafr Manda and damage caused to businesses.

A brawl erupted in Iksal, just outside of Nazareth, between members of two families. Four people were arrested after the two sides attacked police who were dispatched to the scene. In Tuba-Zangariyyeh, it was reported that shots were fired in the air near a police cruiser.

In Kafr Yasif a man sprayed tear gas at one of the polling stations, leading to a brawl that was stopped by police intervention. The polling station was closed as a result. Similarly, in Yarka, brawls erupted in two polling stations. In one, a stun grenade was reportedly flung. Ten people were wounded and taken to the hospitals and the two polling stations were closed as a result.