Jerusalem's Crisis - the Parties' Crisis

The fact that the choice in Jerusalem is between an ultra-Orthodox candidate and a politically inexperienced but right-wing candidate is the result of a grave political failure.

Those who are not ultra-Orthodox have nobody to vote for in the Jerusalem mayoral elections, given that the contenders are Agudat Yisrael functionary Meir Porush, businessman Nir Barkat and Arcadi Gaydamak - whom, for the sake of politeness, we shall call a businessman as well.

Jerusalem is a complex city, and today, it would be difficult to form a coalition as broad as the one set up by legendary mayor Teddy Kollek. Even that coalition was not always a success, and sometimes a high price was paid to the ultra-Orthodox community. But Kollek managed to unite Beitar fans and academics, secular and religious Zionists, the impoverished Katamon neighborhoods and wealthy Rehavia.

The crisis in the Israeli political system is most acutely reflected in Jerusalem. None of the major parties - Kadima, Labor, Likud - is fielding a candidate of its own. This is absurd: Not one of those parties has a mayoral candidate for the city whose fate is the most complex and intricate issue in the peace process.

The reason for this is the primary system and the brief flirtation with direct elections for the prime minister. Together, these crushed the party system by doing away with the parties' local branches. Instead of party activists, there are now "registered members." In the past, both the Labor and Likud offices in Jerusalem were bustling with life, activity, debates and power struggles. Functionaries wishing to get ahead invested days and nights - for years - in local branch activity. Today, the branches have disappeared from the urban scene. This is the case in most cities, and even more so in Jerusalem.

Consequently, when the need arises, the party candidates have no organizational and human infrastructure to help them. And that is why none of the large parties can field a serious candidate for mayor.

Anyone who argues that a businessman like Nir Barkat can provide a substitute for all this is gravely mistaken. The issue is not personal, but a matter of principle. A party candidate represents a worldview, on one hand, and on the other hand, he depends on the party apparatus that fields him. This is a complex dependency. On one hand, it means that party activists must be pushed forward. On the other hand, it implies responsibility toward a specific community - not to a vague "voting public." This is the essence of politics: combining principles with practical needs.

An independent candidate, who is not affiliated with a party, represents nobody but himself - and perhaps a few other businessmen who support him. When Barkat presents himself as a secular candidate, he is turning the Kulturkampf into the main focus of urban politics. Jerusalem is the most sensitive municipality in Israel, not to mention the world. Here you need an understanding of the nuances of both Jewish and Arab politics. You need to know the leading ultra-Orthodox figures and how to find possible partners for compromise. Teddy Kollek was an artist in this task.

But you do not learn all this in business or high-tech. You also need a connection to the centers of power to advance the city's economic interests.

Moreover, as far as Barkat's candidacy goes, he apparently does have a worldview - and it is right-wing and hawkish. The idiotic idea of building another Jewish neighborhood in the eastern part of the city may bring him votes from Likud supporters. But how can Labor, Kadima and Meretz supporters vote for such a candidate? And if they do so because he is "secular," this would reflect the systemic malfunction that the absence of party candidates causes.

There is a place for a Likud candidate in Jerusalem. But the appearance of an independent candidate - who calls himself secular and appeals to the anti-religious sentiments of the nonreligious public, but also espouses a right-wing, nationalist stance - is a severe distortion of the public discourse.

In contrast, reports that Barkat is trying to obtain some of the ultra-Orthodox vote, in view of that community's internal split, raises the question of whether he is so naive as to believe he could get ultra-Orthodox support without paying a political price. And if he is willing to pay that price, how can he present himself as a candidate who wants to "save" the city from the ultra-Orthodox? One way or another, all this points to the problematic aspects of a candidacy that is not anchored in a political framework.

The fact that the choice in Jerusalem is between an ultra-Orthodox candidate and a politically inexperienced but right-wing candidate is the result of a grave political failure. It means that Jerusalem - the capital of Israel, which all politicians, across the board, claim as their highest priority - has been abandoned to a political race that is irrelevant to the grave problems facing the city.

The party apparatus needs to be rehabilitated urgently - because the absence of effective parties, on both the national and local levels, opens the way to phenomena that are better left unnamed. And the third candidate in Jerusalem is a threatening indication of this.