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.

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.

“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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