Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat Faces Tough Reelection Fight

Secular Kingmaker Dumps Incumbent as Vote Looms

Holy Politics: Nir Barkat was elected mayor of Jerusalem after a bitterly sectarian election in 2008. He faces a bruising street fight to win another term at the helm of the holy city.
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Holy Politics: Nir Barkat was elected mayor of Jerusalem after a bitterly sectarian election in 2008. He faces a bruising street fight to win another term at the helm of the holy city.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published September 06, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
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In his first five-year term as mayor of the city holy to the world’s three monotheistic religions, Nir Barkat has limited ultra-Orthodox power in the city, slowed the migration of non-Haredim out of Jerusalem and boosted secular culture — a low priority for his Haredi predecessor — with a budget increase of 300%. But one of Israel’s most powerful and most secular lawmakers is determined to stop him.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beytenu, backed Barkat in 2008. Five years later, he threw his and his party’s weight behind — in fact, actually recruited, if speculation in the Israeli media is to believed — rival candidate Moshe Lion [pronounced LIY-ohn].

What is more, the Likud party also backs Lion. The decision was made by party members and presented to the Knesset caucus and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom Lion once worked as chief of staff. But it appears to be binding, which means that in the October 22 election Barkat will be up against the might of both partners in the Likud-Beytenu party that leads Israel’s national government.

Lieberman’s political maneuvering has served him well. He started Yisrael Beytenu as a small party for Russian speakers in 1999, and shoehorned it into an alliance with Likud in time for last January’s parliamentary elections. Analysts say that, starved of the ability to progress on the national stage due to legal proceedings against him, he is out to conquer Jerusalem by proxy.

“Lieberman plays the game of power, and having his own candidate winning gives him the image of a powerful person and better positions him for what happens in general elections if and when we have them,” commented Hebrew University political scientist Abraham Diskin, an expert on Jerusalem politics and on national parties. “He understands that he won’t get all the power in the world with his own personal mayor, but [he will have a] better opening position.”

Lieberman’s political ambitions have been frustrated since December, when he stepped down from his post as Foreign Minister, just before he was indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust. The position has been kept open for him, and he hopes to return if and when the court clears his name. But in the meantime, he has thrown his energy into the Jerusalem campaign. He has strongly criticized Barkat, even claiming during an August 27 radio interview with Israel Radio that Jerusalem has “really deteriorated” under him.

The Orthodox-Zionist Lion, an accountant who has held powerful appointments in national and local government but never held elected office, is also starting to conquer Haredi politics. An insider in the upper echelons of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party confirmed to the Forward that speculation is correct: The party is poised to announce its support for Lion.


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