Who Should Be Jerusalem’s Next Mayor?

By | Oct 26, 2018
jerusalem mayor

Jerusalemites know that Jerusalem isn’t a normal city. We think of ourselves as special (which, in Jerusalemese, means that we are not like Tel Aviv, our nemesis city down on the coast). Even after years of terror attacks, we know that we are part of the solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Jerusalemness is a complex, confusing and even defiant quality. To a minority, Jerusalemness is extremism. To others, it means embracing diversity.

To be a Jerusalemite is to fight for the city’s soul, to take a side in the struggle between ultra-religious and secular, modern and traditional, past history and future possibilities, Israeli and Palestinian, left and right.

As Israel’s municipal elections, scheduled for October 30, come closer, we are caught between two Jerusalems. Should we vote for a mayor who will focus on the usual municipal issues, such as garbage, lack of affordable housing, intolerable traffic jams and poor public transportation? Someone who will get the public schools in shape, attract high-tech investment and jobs and invest in East Jerusalem.

Or should we vote visions and identity politics—for candidates who promise to “unite” the Jewish factions or for those who promise to “rescue the city from ultra-Orthodox domination”? Should we vote for candidates who promise to keep theaters, museums and restaurants open on Shabbat or for those who promise to shut them down? For those who promise gender inclusivity in public spaces, such as the Kotel Plaza and public swimming pools, or for those who want to keep men and women separate?

Should we vote for a mayor who promises to acknowledge a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem or one who vows that Jerusalem will never be divided?

But we also know that we are deluding ourselves—the mayor of this city can barely put up a traffic light without government support, and he (no, there aren’t any female candidates for mayor) is certainly not empowered to deal with issues such as Sabbath observance, the Kotel, or whether or not to permit construction in East Jerusalem. Even public transportation lines cross political, national and ethnic borders.

So it might not be surprising that less than a week before the elections, polls reveal that the largest group of voters is the one made up of people who don’t know who to vote for. And many Jerusalemites may not even vote at all: In the previous municipal elections in 2013, average voter turnout in Jerusalem, was 36.1 percent (compared to 51.9 percent across all of Israel).

To be sure, some of the non-voters are ultra-Orthodox extremists, who refuse to recognize the validity of the State of Israel and have plastered the walls of their neighborhoods with graffiti that they would “rather die than vote.” And a large portion of the non-voters are Palestinians, who have boycotted municipal elections as a statement of opposition to Israel’s control over East Jerusalem. In the 2013 elections, less than one percent of eligible Palestinians voted.

There are plenty of candidates and options. In municipal elections, voters cast two ballots, one for mayor and another for a party list for city council. Some lists are headed by mayoral contenders; most aren’t. When the campaign started out, there were 13 mayoral candidates and close to two dozen lists. Currently, five candidates remain, four of whom have a reasonable chance of being elected, and the number of lists is down to less than 20. Some of the candidates are supported by national parties, but not necessarily by the local branches. Others are supported by different leading politicians, even if they represent other parties. And some candidates have apparently made deals with some of the lists.

The candidates:

Zeev Elkin, 47, is the current Minister for Jerusalem Affairs in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. A long-time member of the Likud party, Elkin is Netanyahu’s selected candidate, and Netanyahu has gone out of his way to stump for him. Elkin also has the public support of Education Minister Naftali Bennet, who is Netanyahu’s prime rival on the national level.

He has stated that he will not support public transportation on Shabbat in Jerusalem and would not attend Jerusalem’s LGBT Pride march. He has refused to attend a panel that took place in a Reform congregation. And like Netanyahu and Bennet, Elkin is a hardliner about Jewish control over Palestinian neighborhoods.

Elkin emphasizes that his close relationship with the Prime Minister will increase government investment in Jerusalem and will benefit the city. But Elkin isn’t an organic Jerusalemite. It is clear to all that he moved to the city two years ago in order to run for mayor at Netanyahu’s bidding. He hasn’t won over the local branch of the Likud party, which is supporting Moshe Leon.

Moshe Leon, 57, is a former Director General of Netanyahu’s PM office and, despite Netanyahu’s support for Elkin, Leon has the support of the local Likud party chapter. He came to live in Jerusalem in 2013, ran for mayor and lost badly. But he stayed in the city, held the city’s Community Administrative portfolio in the municipal coalition, and earned respect from both professionals and politicians alike.

He is supported by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, from the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. He also has the endorsement of some of the most prominent Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis—even though there is also an Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox candidate.

Like Elkin, Leon has pushed a hard line, encouraging Jewish settler activity in Palestinian neighborhoods and stating that he would be unwilling to attend an LGBT pride march. Even though he has said that he would support the status quo—no commerce on Shabbat, but entertainment and restaurants will remain open—liberal secularists and traditionalists fear he will be beholden to the ultra-Orthodox and to their demands to close down entertainment, restaurants and other facilities on Shabbat.

Yoseph Deitsch, 50, is the ultra-Orthodox candidate. Unlike most ultra-Orthodox men, Deitsch served in the military and has also been responsible for projects to promote professional study and employment in the ultra-Orthodox sector.

Deitsch is supported by some of the ultra-Orthodox community, especially the Hasidic groups. He has also courted secular Jerusalemites in countless parlor meetings and hip political ads. He has even promised not to close down the popular First Station restaurant and entertainment quarter or other movie venues currently open Shabbat, in order to preserve the status quo. He seems to be gaining traction, and, over the past few days, has emerged as a serious contender.

Ofer Berkowitz, 35, is the youngest candidate, running for mayor as head of the centrist “Hitorirut” (Awakening) party, which first ran for election in 2013. Most of his support comes from secular Jews and some of the modern Orthodox Jewish community. Berkowitz has championed pluralism and promised not give in to ultra-Orthodox demands.

He’s a home-grown Jerusalemite, a leading local activist in jeans and a blazer. He’s centrist but practical, and his list is pluralistic and diverse. But Berkowitz has absolutely no managerial experience nor has he led any significant projects or initiatives. He has no national political affiliations and carries no weight along the corridors of national power and financing.

The there are the party lists, which span the political spectrum from Meretz, which is the local branch of the national, left-wing Meretz party to the Meurav Yerushalmi party, whose 26-year-old head, Evyatar Elbaz, has posted ads on Facebook touting the endorsements from Bentzi Gopstein, head of the extremist, anti-assimilation group, Lahava, and convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland.

And then there is the list headed by Ramadan Dabash, a Palestinian from Tzur Baher in East Jerusalem. This is the first time that a Palestinian has presented a serious attempt to run for municipal council. Palestinian hardliners have called him a traitor for running and it is unclear if this time the Palestinians will come out to vote, even for a Palestinian candidate. But Dabash is campaigning in Hebrew, too, and says he has support from secular Jewish Jerusalemites.

Confused? So are we.

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