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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Barkat’s campaign disparages the fact that Lion only moved to Jerusalem from near Tel Aviv a few months ago, and chides Lieberman and Shas chairman Arye Deri for trying to dethrone the incumbent. “After many years of neglect, Mayor Barkat has helped transform the city of Jerusalem,” said Barkat spokeswoman Keren Manor. “We are confident that the residents of Jerusalem, who see and feel the positive change, do not want a reversal of all the progress and city improvements, just for the political interests of Deri and Lieberman.”

Shas entering the equation brings in a party with such a hold over its following that some of its posters for the January general election said they should vote Shas simply because “thus ruled the rabbi,” referring to its rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. As such, a partnership with Shas brings Lion assured votes — but not without strings. Shas will have its price. Speculation is already underway as to how Shas’ demands may change the character of the more liberal Jerusalem that has emerged under Barkat, who took over from Haredi mayor Uri Lupolianski.

This election looks like it will be very different from the last one, in 2008. Then, there was a clear face-off between two visions for the city, with Barkat standing on secularism and pluralism, while his main opponent Meir Porush, a Haredi rabbi, offered a religious vision. This time, the fight — between two men who have traditionally supported the Likud party — is likely to be for a subtler form of religious control.

Lion, despite the expected alliance with Shas, is unlikely to launch divisive fights to close certain venues, streets or parking lots on the Sabbath. His spokesman said that he would not force Friday night and Saturday closure of the First Station, the new recreational complex that is open on Shabbat.

In fact, Lion is keen to take much of the credit for the complex, which was conceived as a seven-days-a-week venue. Until this summer he was chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), the partnership between local and national government that promotes development in Jerusalem and played a significant role in preparing the First Station. Lion “brought in millions of shekels for things that Barkat is taking credit for,” his spokesman complained. The strategy of Barkat’s campaign regarding Lion’s JDA work has been to downplay its importance; Lion was a “good clerk who carried out the policies and vision of the mayor,” according to Barkat spokeswoman Manor.

Instead of high-profile fights for religious control in the public domain, Lion is expected to offer Haredim the all-important planning portfolio — the equivalent of a ministry within local government — which Barkat has, to their frustration, withheld from them. This is the key asset in the increasing tug-of-war over allocations of municipality-owned land. To the fast-growing Haredi community, the acquisition of land for institutions and housing suitable for large families is key. For all Jerusalemites, decisions about land allocation help to define the character of neighborhoods.


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