Israel's Local Elections Foreshadow the 2019 Knesset Race

Cabinet members traipsing across Israel aren’t ashamed to tell voters to elect a Likud candidate who will have access to the national government’s coffers. But what will happen in communities where the Likud candidate loses?

Prime Minister Benjamina Netanyahu with Zeev Elkin walking through Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, October 24, 2018
Oren Ben Hakun

Jerusalem residents might very well be confused about Tuesday’s municipal elections. Next to billboards with pictures of two of the mayoral candidates – Ofer Berkovitch and Moshe Leon – one can see a huge sign saying “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Go vote Elkin.”

But the image of Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin is nowhere to be found. The Likud branch in Jerusalem doesn’t support Elkin.

This billboard with Netanyahu is the epitome of the confusion in the local-election campaign mixing national and local politics. Likud MKs have apologized to this reporter over the past two weeks because they haven’t been available in the Knesset; they’ve been too busy with the municipal elections.

Make no mistake. Beyond the fact that Netanyahu seeks to project national strength by having as many candidates identified with Likud winning on Tuesday, the parties in the governing coalition are using the local elections as a prelude to their 2019 Knesset campaigns. Giant signs portraying Netanyahu in Jerusalem are using Elkin’s campaign money for the prime minister’s personal campaign.

Opposition MKs lack this privilege. It was easier to find Zionist Union MKs in the Knesset last week.

First, Zionist Union has no candidates in the local elections per se, only those running for the Labor Party, Zionist Union’s main component.

Second, in light of the party’s poor showing in the polls, many local candidates think twice about the value of endorsements from Zionist Union MKs. They fear that such support could work against them.

The demonstrations of support by Likud ministers and MKs are unabashed.

Netanyahu may have been kidding at a conference in Beit She’an up north when he told residents that if they vote for Likud’s Jackie Levy they’ll be rewarded with the building of a direct train line to Tel Aviv. But his ministers aren’t joking when they promise Jerusalemites direct access to government coffers if they elect Likud candidates.

Consider Ilan Yarimi, who is running in Kiryat Ekron in the south. It wasn’t enough to put up huge signs in the small city declaring that “the Israeli government supports Ilan Yarimi” without first receiving consent from Likud’s coalition partners. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi had to announce in a video: “I fully support Ilan Yarimi, deputy head of our local council, who is well connected to MKs, ministers and the government.” Culture Minister Miri Regev chimed in with the same sentiment.

In Fureidis, an Arab town south of Haifa, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel released a video promising that “we in the government back Ayman Mari, and we’ll make sure there will be lots of resources to help you.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party is also getting in the game. At a rally for Beit She’an Mayor Rafi Ben-Sheetrit, Kahlon said that “with God’s help, you’ll support Rafi Ben-Sheetrit and you’ll get an outstanding high-tech park.

Such statements send a clear message: We have the budgets, and our candidates, who have connections to us, will provide the money to your town.

Parties in power have always supported the candidates who identified with them. Netanyahu will support Nili Aharon in her campaign in Yeruham in the south, knowing that she’ll return the favor in the national election. Israel is divided into camps, and anyone who denies this has his head stuck in the sand.

But the moment that someone in power talks about a candidate in terms of being “well-connected,” that talk borders on corruption. It’s only natural that the heads of Druze, ultra-Orthodox and Arab localities aren’t as well connected to Israel’s ruling party. Does this fact hurt their residents?

The Israeli government has great influence over the economic situation of people in Israel’s towns, villages and agricultural communities. The independent revenue of local municipalities constitutes only about half their total budgets. Funding from government ministries, health grants and funds allocated for needs like education and welfare all depend on the discretion of specific ministers.

Thus the education minister can affect the prioritization of building schools in local communities. The transportation minister can prioritize the pace of investment in intercity roads. The social affairs minister can ramp up the number of social workers in certain local authorities. The culture minister influences where lottery funds are directed. The social equality minister can decide that spending millions for accessibility to a certain website is the most important thing at the moment.

All these decisions are supposed to be nonpartisan, irrespective of a local official’s connections. What will happen in communities where the Likud candidate loses? Will Likud take revenge on the local people the next day?