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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“The most important issues [for Haredim] concern land use, developing neighborhoods and land for schools,” said Israel Kimhi, director of the Jerusalem Studies Desk at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Laura Varton, a city councilor from the left-wing secularist Meretz party, said that the planning portfolio is “crucial in terms of determining how this city will look in the future.” She added: “The ultra-Orthodox take advantage of their power in the council and committees to give themselves control of assets all over the city.”

Varton gave the example of the current controversy about the border between the predominantly Haredi neighborhood of Bayit Vegan and the mixed neighborhood of Ramat Sharett. In February the city council approved a plan to allocate land to build three yeshivot there, and Varton’s faction is currently challenging the decision in the court.

If the planning committee were in ultra-Orthodox hands, plans like the one for this project would become more common, while infrastructure for the non-Haredi community would suffer, she said.

The pro-pluralism Yerushalmim party is also pessimistic about Lion. “He’ll serve [Haredi] purposes in a very clear way… by giving them whatever they want.”

While Yerushalmim seems set to declare support for Barkat, Meretz and Labor are together fielding their own mayoral candidate, claiming that the other candidates are not proposing the kind of curtailment of Orthodox power that they want to see. Their candidate, former deputy mayor Pepe Alalu, wants to strip local funding from Haredi schools that reject state involvement and teach their own curriculum.

Though Alalu stands little chance of electoral success, Labor and Meretz say their candidate is needed to put pressure on Barkat. “The current mayor thinks that he has the whole secular and modern-Orthodox population in his pocket and that he can campaign as much as he wants to the ultra-Orthodox and we’ll have no choice [but] to vote for him,” said Varton.

For Lieberman, the champion of Lion, the best chance of allaying fears about growing Haredi power seems to be to suggest that their secularism will counter-balance Shas’ religiosity if the challenger is elected. “Lieberman and his supporters represent the most secular people in Jerusalem,” said Diskin, the political scientist.

Reach Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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