The announcement by Kulanu party Knesset member Rachel Azaria that she too will be running for mayor of Jerusalem splits the non-ultra-Orthodox vote in the city even further and brings to the fore bitter disagreements within the city’s secular political camp. Those Jerusalemites who are not ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, will note with particular interest that the capital has become an attractive destination for politicians on the national level, and that the large number of mayoral candidates will result in a spirited campaign that ultimately will boost the turnout among secular and non-Haredi religious voters.
For years, predictions about Jerusalem’s future in the Israeli press forecast that the 2018 municipal election would involve a battle among the so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox (non-Hasidic) political camp, the Hasidic ultra-Orthodox camp and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
As things stand now, however, the mayoral election – scheduled, as elsewhere in the country, for October 30 – pits two right-wing religious candidates (Zeev Elkin and Moshe Leon) against three secular candidates (Ofer Berkovitch, Yossi Havilio and Avi Salman) and a liberal religious woman (Rachel Azaria). Sitting on the fence are at least two other secular candidates (Kobi Kahlon and Nachman Shai), who are eyeing the city as a stepping-stone to their political future.
The city's pluralistic public has proven time and again that the rumors of its death were premature. In fact, this public has even become a focus of the current election campaign. The competition – for the time being, it should be said – is over the hearts and votes of non-Haredi voters.
So, for example, the threat by Haredi Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman that he will not support a candidate who fails to commit to closing nightlife spots in the Mahaneh Yehuda market was met by scorn from all of the candidates, and those candidates who have not announced that they will keep another of the city’s entertainment complexes, the First Station, open on Shabbat have come in for criticism.
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The problem of the multiplicity of non-Haredi mayoral candidates is also, however, bad news for Jerusalem's pluralistic community, because a split in the non-Haredi vote increases the chances that a Haredi candidate (in all probability Deputy Mayor Yosef Daitsh) will choose to run as well. If the split continues until October 30, it also increases the prospect that Daitsh will win.
Rachel Azaria is very closely identified with the liberal-religious communities in Jerusalem’s southern Baka and Katamonim neighborhoods. This is a fascinating group, from a religious and political standpoint, and it spearheaded several successful political battles – against the exclusion of women from the public sphere, in support of kashrut supervision outside the purview of the Chief Rabbinate, and against religious coercion. Azaria was able to harness the energy of this community to the realm local politics.
But the bottom line was that, in the 2013 election, Azaria’s Yerushalmim party didn’t manage to become the city’s major pluralistic movement. It took two seats on the city council, as compared to four for the Hitorerut B'Yerushalayim (Wake Up Jerusalem) ticket and four for outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s Yerushalayim Tatzliach faction. Two years later, Azaria gave up municipal politics for a spot on the Knesset slate of the center-right Kulanu party.
In a recent statement, she said her attachment to the city and her longing for the grass roots of Jerusalem pushed her to run for mayor and “to return home,” as she put it. She took the step after conducting comprehensive polling on her prospects. The results, she said, show that the hurdles facing a liberal-religious woman candidate are lower than they initially seemed. The surveys, she claimed, have proved that the process of change among local religious and even Haredi voters is deeper and broader than what appears on the surface, and that opposition to her is less strong than it looks from outside of Jerusalem, giving her an opening to be elected.
Azaria intends to return to her local politic home, the Yerushalmim ticket, rather than relying on the leader of the national Kulanu party, Moshe Kahlon. In recent weeks, Yerushalmim had been on the verge of signing a merger agreement with Hitorerut and throwing its support over to mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch, but Azaria’s entry into the race has scrambled the deck.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Berkovitch is angry with Azaria. His supporters accuse her of abandoning her seat on the municipal council in the middle of her term in search of a cushy job in the Knesset – and, now, of abandoning the Knesset in search of a cushy job in Jerusalem politics.
Despite the bad blood between the two parties, as the election approaches, pressure will build for them to unite so as not to harm the political power of their larger, shared political camp.
The most recent polls show that the three leading candidates are Elkin, Berkovitch and Leon, but none of them are close to garnering the 40-percent support that a candidate needs to clinch the mayoral race in a first round of voting.
Campaigning being what it is, all of the candidates explain why they have the best chances of winning and leaving the others in the dust. What is not in doubt, however, is that there is a long summer of campaigning ahead of us. And one can only be pleased to see that things are now, Jerusalem is shaping up as having the most interesting election campaign in the country.