A Look at the Candidates to Become Jerusalem’s Next Mayor
JNS.org – The late Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek used to say that if one wanted to uproot and replant a tree in Jerusalem, it might require the UN Security Council. He was not exaggerating.
Jerusalem is home to three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The largest city in Israel with approximately one million residents, it is also a bastion of coexistence, where Arabs and Jews frequent the same streets, shop in the same malls, and work in the same stores. And it serves as a litmus test for the rest of Israel — and the world.
By the end of next month, Jerusalem will also have a new leader.
Current mayor Nir Barkat will enter national politics, leaving a vacancy at City Hall in Safra Square in downtown Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City walls. Already, there are a record eight candidates running for mayor. At least one more is expected to throw his name into the ring by the September 28 deadline heading towards the October 30 election.
Peggy Cidor has been covering Jerusalem and its mayors for more than two decades, including the races and reigns of Uri Lupolianski, Ehud Olmert — both of whom wound up in jail for similar issues involving corruption — and Barkat. She sat down with JNS to help analyze the race.
“Jerusalem is crucial and important,” said Cidor, The Jerusalem Post’s veteran municipal-affairs correspondent. “Whatever happens in Jerusalem will happen in a decade or less in the rest of the country.”
Haredi Jews make up 39% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, which means “you cannot really win a race in Jerusalem” without their support, she stated.
At the outset of the race, it seemed that Deputy Mayor Moshe Lion would get the ultra-Orthodox vote. Lion moved to Jerusalem from Givatayim six years ago, convinced that he would beat Barkat for the top seat thanks to substantial Haredi support. But when the large Gur Chassidic sect shifted its support to Barkat, Lion failed. Now he is running again.
Early reports showed Lion as a top contender. But today “his chances are not very high,” said Cidor, citing polls giving Lion 11% of the vote.
What changed is that the Haredim are now considering running their own candidate: Yossi Daitch (United Torah Judaism), a deputy mayor representing the ultra-Orthodox list at the City Council.
Daitch wants to run, but up until now, the Lithuanian majority of Hassidim has not put their votes behind him, and he is “sweating blood and tears to obtain that support,” according to Cidor.
It used to be that a major rabbi would endorse a candidate and the people would agree; however, as is being demonstrated, “the era where everyone stands up and does what one of the rabbis says is over,” Cidor said. “If Daitch enters the race, Lion has no chance.”
If Daitch does not enter, however, Lion in the lead.
There is another Haredi candidate: Chaim Epstein, from the radical Peleg Yerushalmi faction, which has repeatedly shut down Jerusalem streets to protest the Haredi draft law.
“He is not even dreaming of being mayor,” said Cidor, explaining that Epstein’s goal is to ensure a seat on the city council for his bloc — he has one seat now and is a member of Barkat’s coalition — so his sector can obtain the rights that it wants, such as more synagogues and schools.
Rachel Azaria is the first-ever female candidate for mayor in Jerusalem, but she might not make it into office because she has aggravated the Haredi community.
She also angered much of her constituency when she abandoned Jerusalem City Hall for the Knesset in 2015.
“I’m convinced that she came back to Jerusalem not only because of nostalgia, but [because] her future with her Kulanu Party was blurred, to put it mildly,” said Cidor.
While her chances of becoming mayor are slim to none, Azaria has a fair chance of obtaining two or three city council seats for her bloc. Since announcing that she was coming back to Jerusalem and running, she stands at 6% in the polls.
Azaria represents pluralist Jews, and has put extra emphasis on the Modern Orthodox sector — but the Haredim don’t like her.
“She has conducted a few struggles against the ultra-Orthodox, and they don’t forget,” said Cidor. “She is a red flag for the ultra-Orthodox, and you cannot really win a race in Jerusalem if you are the number one enemy of the ultra-Orthodox. They will do anything to stop her.”
In contrast, the 36-year-old Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut) is “a young promise of a new dawn,” said Cidor, who stated that polls show Berkovitch coming out towards the top — if not winning the election.
Berkovitch represents the secular, traditional, and mildly religious pluralistic sector of the city, and he is the “default choice” for many people who don’t want Lion, wouldn’t vote for a Haredi candidate, and are afraid of mayoral prospect Ze’ev Elkin. “He is smart and very popular,” said Cidor.
Elkin, on the other hand, is those things and more, according to Cidor, who says the candidate is on a “personal political mission” from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes in a unified Jerusalem and thinks that Elkin can achieve it for him by pushing for his plan to split off several Arab neighborhoods beyond the West Bank separation barrier from the Jerusalem municipality.
“Elkin has been clear: Arabs can live in Jerusalem — [but] not Palestinians,” said Cidor.
Elkin is a currently a Likud Knesset member and the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Environmental Protection.
Two other Jewish candidates are on the ballot: First, Avi Salman, a young lawyer, once a close assistant to Barkat and today a loud critic of the way that he handles municipal issues. Salman, like Berkovitch, is 36 years old. He is also the only candidate to include a disabled woman (No. 3) on his list.
However, Cidor said, “Salman is a bad joke.” Most polls do not give him more than 4% of votes, but he has refused so far to withdraw from the race or to join with another candidate.
The other Jewish candidate is Yossi Havilio, a former municipal legal adviser who also has no chance of becoming mayor and knows it himself, with polls showing him at about 4 or 5%. It is likely that Havilio will join Berkovitch.
One Arab candidate is in the running: Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian entrepreneur and CEO of a travel company, who has thrown his hat into the ring at the head of a newly formed list called Al-Quds Lana. However, like 90% of Arabs in eastern Jerusalem, he is a resident but not a citizen. Under the law, only citizens can be mayor of Jerusalem. Abu Sarah plans to sue the High Court of Justice to have that law changed.
Most Arabs have boycotted elections since 1967, because they oppose the city’s unification. Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, issued a fatwa (Islamic edict) forbidding eastern Jerusalemites to vote. But a recent survey conducted by a Palestinian polling company found that 22% of that sector would like to vote.
In the last election in 2013, less than 2% of the eligible eastern Jerusalemites voted.
Cidor said that in the recent past, Palestinians who thought of running for City Hall would have their lives threatened. Today, she notes, that is no longer a fear.
She does not know who will win, of course, but Cidor predicts that Havilio will join Berkovitch and that Daitch will decide to run, causing Lion to withdraw. Azaria, she said, will run to the end, but Cidor believes the rumors that the female candidate has already worked out a deal with Elkin that, if he wins, she will join his coalition and receive the role of deputy mayor.
In Jerusalem, there can be up to eight deputy mayors. If no one has the majority after the first round of voting, a runoff will be initiated.
“The final top candidates will be Berkovitch versus Elkin,” predicted Cidor, noting that Elkin is the right-wing candidate and Jerusalem is a right-wing city.
“Is that enough to bring him into office?” she asked. “It is too early to tell.”