Analysis

Race for Jerusalem Mayor Heats Up With Mud-slinging and Conspiracies

With less than a month to go, battles are raging over the ultra-Orthodox vote and continuing attempts are being made to blacken the name of the leading candidate

A campaign poster for Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch, September 2, 2018.
Emil Salman

A little more than three weeks before the municipal election in Jerusalem, four mayoral candidates still have realistic shots at winning. Each can provide a detailed map of his path to victory, based on his own view of reality. But in the meantime, their campaigns are degenerating into smears and conspiracy theories.

Moshe Leon was happy on Sunday because a front-page article in the ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne’eman reiterated that his candidacy is being backed by the rabbinic leaders of the Degel Hatorah party.

“After the past, difficult 10 years, during which the city has suffered from terrible secularization,” the article said, the rabbis had decided to support Leon – just as they did five years ago, albeit to no avail.

Both Degel Hatorah – the non-Hasidic faction of United Torah Judaism – and Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party, announced their support for Leon on the eve of Yom Kippur last month, in a surprise decision that suddenly put him back in the race. But Leon has yet to receive a formal letter of support from either party’s rabbis.

That situation prompted Yossi Daitch, the one ultra-Orthodox candidate in the Jerusalem race, to argue that in the end, both parties would revert to their usual stance of presenting a united ultra-Orthodox front and would back him. For now, Sunday’s article in Degel Hatorah’s house newspaper has given mayoral hopeful Leon renewed confidence.

Leon, an accountant, is happy to explain the mathematics of his path to victory to anyone who's willing to listen, although the polls don’t support his analysis. The key number is 100,000 votes, or 40 percent of the expected total: That is the minimum necessary to win without a runoff election. Leon believes Shas and Degel Hatorah are worth 65,000 votes and thinks he can pick up the rest from religious-Zionist, secular and even Hasidic voters – although officially, the Hasidim are backing Daitch.

But Daitch, as noted, hasn’t given up hope that Shas and Degel Hatorah will ultimately support him, and has meanwhile vowed to fight to the bitter end. Last week, he presented his large campaign staff, and in a recent television debate hosted by Channel 2 journalist Rina Matzliach, most of the pundits declared Daitch the winner, saying he was knowledgeable, prepared and aggressive.

“The election ends on October 30,” he said. “Until then, it’s wide open.”

Among Jerusalem's non-ultra-Orthodox voters, secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch is currently ahead, prompting his main rival for this part of the electorate, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, to step up his attacks.

Some three weeks ago, Elkin’s campaign headquarters disseminated a video that mocked Berkovitch’s inexperience and lack of connections. Channel 20 television subsequently published an investigative report alleging that Berkovitch and his Hitorerut party have ties to the left-wing New Israel Fund.

On Sunday, another embarrassing clip was circulated, showing several women from the Women in Black movement, which demonstrates against the occupation every Friday, expressing support for Berkovitch. The clear intention was to paint the mayoral candidate as a radical leftist.

There’s no evidence that Elkin is behind that video, and he also denies any connection to the Channel 20 report. But the message both of these items sent, which is also percolating through social media, is precisely the message Elkin wants to spread – that Berkovitch is a leftist who accepts donations from anonymous sources.

The fact that three members of the rightist Likud party have relatively high slots on Berkovitch’s city-council slate doesn’t seem to have hindered in the slightest any of the attempts to paint him as a leftist.

“It’s clear that Elkin is conducting many more polls than we are, and because it’s clear to him that he’s losing, he’s engaging in mud-slinging,” said one source in Berkovitch’s camp.

“Ofer's conduct reflects his lack of experience,” retorted someone involved in Elkin’s campaign. “Had he revealed the list of loans that he’s taken and acted transparently, as we have done – he’d be sinking.”

In any event, according to last week’s poll by the Walla internet news site, Berkovitch was again in first place, with 22 percent of the vote. But Elkin was close behind, with 19 percent, and 31 percent of those surveyed said they were still undecided.

Elkin sees that poll as further proof of his argument that he is the only candidate who can win the top spot in Jerusalem without having to depend on the ultra-Orthodox vote, which both Daitch or Leon would have to do. Indeed, Elkin insists he has the best chance because he draws support from all of the different religious communities in the city. His optimal scenario would be for Daitch to bow out at the last minute and urge his Hasidic supporters to back Elkin instead.

Elkin also claims that Berkovitch has already reached the maximum limit of popular support, since he can’t attract either ultra-Orthodox voters or politically conservative religious Zionists.

Indeed, despite his ostensibly successful campaign and his lead in the polls, few pundits are betting that the young, secular Berkovitch will be able to garner the 40 percent of the vote needed for a first-round victory. But all the polls show that if there’s a runoff election – he will be in it.

Meanwhile, the Channel 2 debate revealed the moral depths to which the candidates are willing to sink to please their imagined voters. Interviewer Matzliach asked all four one simple question: Do they think an Arab can play for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team? Three of the four gave embarrassingly evasive answers about the team, whose fans have been involved in sometimes violent anti-Arab incidents.

“Every team has its special character,” Leon said. “Ultimately, it must listen to its fans and go along with them and the audience, and not do things just to be contrarian.”

Elkin said this is a professional decision that the mayor has no business getting involved in, and Daitch revealed that he knows nothing about soccer.

Only Berkovitch said unequivocally that he would have no problem with an Arab playing for Beitar. Perhaps in the next video clip, his answer will be portrayed as further proof of his metastasizing leftism.