As Jerusalem votes for mayor, a referendum on Barkat

As Jerusalem votes for mayor, a referendum on Barkat

Haredi backing and political connections notwithstanding, unproven outsider Moshe Lion can only become mayor if non-ultra Orthodox Jerusalemites are profoundly unhappy with the incumbent

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

A secular demonstration in favor of a 'Free Jerusalem' and against ultra-Orthodox coercion, outside City Hall, June 27, 2009 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A secular demonstration in favor of a 'Free Jerusalem' and against ultra-Orthodox coercion, outside City Hall, June 27, 2009 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

As of last week, the sense among those in Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s inner circle was that, for all challenger Moshe Lion’s support from key ultra-Orthodox rabbis, there was no scenario in which Barkat would not be reelected on October 22.

Then Ovadia Yosef died.

In the last elections in Beit Shemesh, as then-local political activist and today Yesh Atid Knesset member Dov Lipman recalled in an interview with The Times of Israel earlier this year, Rabbi Ovadia’s intervention remade that race and carried the day: Shas took over a Beit Shemesh gymnasium, Yosef assured the packed house that they’d “get the World to Come” if they voted for his man, and Shas’s opponents had no ammunition that could possibly compete with that rabbinical promise of paradise.

Is something similar about to happen in Jerusalem?

Moshe Lion had been trying hard to get some face time with the dying sage, desperate for a videoed endorsement from a figure who — whether his funeral drew 800,000 or, more likely, half that number — was revered by a not insignificant proportion of the Jerusalem electorate.

With the dirt still settling on Yosef’s grave, Shas’s bereft Council of Torah Sages rushed to assert that the God-fearing Lion was indeed the rabbi’s choice, even if he hadn’t quite gotten around to saying so before shuffling off this mortal coil. Honor Ovadia, elect Lion.

This begs two questions: whether the Yosef effect will live on after the rabbi and, if it does, whether any additional posthumous push for Lion would be enough to oust Barkat.

The mayor won office last time on the strength of a credible claim to be capable of running the city effectively, bolstered by a term’s experience on the council, but also thanks to a certain division in the ultra-Orthodox camp born of the less-than-universal support there for Haredi candidate Meir Porush. While denying that he has cut deals with the ultra-Orthodox power brokers, or made commitments to give their representatives key positions of power in the running of the city and the shaping of its development, Lion has secured several key rabbinical endorsements. That and the possible Yosef effect might see the city’s 85,000 likely ultra-Orthodox voters turn out en masse for Lion, which would take him a good part of the distance to City Hall.

But even overwhelming support from the ultra-Orthodox is not sufficient for a would-be mayor. And Lion’s talk of having 40,000 Likud voters on board is difficult to credit. One of his tactics, to try to ensure that Jerusalemites of a Likud mindset indeed support him, is to depict Barkat as a bit of a leftist. But that’s certainly not how Jerusalem’s genuine leftists regard the mayor, and it’s a charge that seems unlikely to stick.

Where Lion might prove to have been more effective is in his effort to assert that the mayor is out of touch with working-class Jerusalemites, who feel the streets are too dirty and the housing prices far too high, and who aren’t listening closely when Barkat assures them that little of the city’s budget is spent on landmark “branding” events such as the Formula Jerusalem motor-racing exhibition.

Take a step back, look coldly, and Barkat has an uphill struggle: He’s the secular mayor of an Orthodox city, facing an Orthodox challenger. He’s the incumbent with a track record to defend, facing an outsider promising the world. He’s a political independent facing a rival with extensive political connections and support. He’s an earnest management type up against a jolly “chevra-man.”

But he’s also a mayor of hard-to-dispute competence challenged by an unproven outsider.

One large chunk of the Jerusalem electorate — the Arabs — won’t vote for any Zionist candidate. Another large chunk — the ultra-Orthodox — is now largely in Lion’s pocket. On October 22, the rest of voting Jerusalem will have to decide whether Barkat has done a reasonable job of reviving the deeply troubled city he inherited, and should thus be given a second term, or whether it’s time to let someone else have a try.

For this sector, whose choice and whose turnout will ultimately determine the election, the vote will be a referendum on Barkat, because the truth is they don’t know much about his rival, and what they do know — that he was the director-general of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office for a while, that he’s Avigdor Liberman’s buddy, that he comes from Givatayim, that he is the preferred choice of the ultra-Orthodox rabbi-powerbrokers, and that he’s never run anything remotely on the scale of the city of Jerusalem — won’t come close to swaying them unless they are profoundly unhappy with the incumbent.

One final thought: If non-ultra Orthodox Jerusalem were to actually bother to go and vote with a similar turnout to the ultra-Orthodox, the mayoral battlefield would look distinctly different. You’d think all Jerusalemites might want to make that effort, to determine the nature of the city they live in. Experience would suggest you’d be wrong.

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