In municipal elections, a race with national implications

In municipal elections, a race with national implications

Setting the stage for face-offs between Israel's left and right, its secular and religious, Tuesday's vote is a microcosm of big party politics

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Backdropped by Jerusalem's Old City Walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with Mayor Nir Barkat following Barkat's endorsement of him, a day before the general elections, on January 21, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Backdropped by Jerusalem's Old City Walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with Mayor Nir Barkat following Barkat's endorsement of him, a day before the general elections, on January 21, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Tuesday’s nationwide local elections are remarkable for their national implications: More than at any time in memory, the local ballots will be watched carefully by national parties as signals of their own political future.

The two largest races, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are essentially primaries within Israel’s major political camps. Both leading candidates in Jerusalem, incumbent Nir Barkat and challenger Moshe Lion, are right-wing Likud men. And both top contenders in Tel Aviv, incumbent Ron Huldai and Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, are avowedly left-wing. No religious or right-wing candidate could win Tel Aviv, where Meretz won a plurality of the vote in the national elections in January. And no left-wing challenger could win Jerusalem — indeed, demographic figures suggest it is only a matter of time before Kikar Safra (Jerusalem’s city hall) will turn finally and decisively ultra-Orthodox.

The Jerusalem race is notable for the strange alliance it has wrought between Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and Avigdor Liberman, head of the Russian-speaking secularists in Yisrael Beytenu. The two are united behind the official Likud candidate Moshe Lion in an effort to unseat the front-runner Barkat, a high-tech multimillionaire seen as the representative in Kikar Safra of the city’s slowly dwindling secular, tax-paying economic base. (Jerusalem’s Arab residents, it must be noted, appear set to continue their decades-long boycott of municipal elections in protest at Israel’s control of the city.)

The very strangeness of the Shas-Yisrael Beytenu alliance — the parties are bitter enemies in national politics — may be its undoing. Detractors, including Barkat’s own well-funded campaign, have framed the alliance as an attempt by Deri and Liberman to play petty political games with Jerusalem’s future. Worse, the two aspiring kingmakers of Israeli politics are facing the very real possibility that despite their overt support for Lion, he — and they — might lose the race, and see their perceived political clout (in politics, perception often determines reality) diminish in one fell swoop.

This looming possibility has pushed both party leaders to drastic measures. Just two days after Shas’s charismatic spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away earlier this month, the party’s three-member Council of Torah Sages announced that Yosef’s “last decree” to his followers was his wish that they vote for Lion. Liberman, meanwhile, resorted to an angry Facebook post bluntly calling Barkat an arrogant liar and alleging that he harbors racist views of Russian-speaking and Sephardi Jews.

The Jerusalem mayoral race has now become predominantly a national one. “Deri and Liberman vote Lion; Jerusalem votes Barkat,” reads Barkat’s new, last-minute campaign poster, replacing the posters plastered city-wide that talked about employment, education and the like.

Left, Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, seen at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 20, 2013, as he opens his campaign for the mayoral elections. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, at a press conference, July 22, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat (left), at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 20, 2013, as he opens his campaign for the mayoral elections. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90); Jerusalem mayoral candidate (right) Moshe Lion, at a press conference, on July 22, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It is important to note that Lion is not entirely at fault for the use, or misuse, of his candidacy. He is a competent public servant, a former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office and chairman of Israel Railways. Some of his supporters have pointed out that as a Modern Orthodox Sephardi Jew with extensive “secular” credentials, he may constitute a kind of compromise candidate bridging the fractured Jewish population of the capital.

As with Jerusalem, so in Beit Shemesh, where a coalition of national religious, secular, Sephardi, French and Anglo, and even a handful of reformist Haredim are supporting secular candidate Eli Cohen against the incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor Moshe Abutbul.

As Cohen tells the media, the race is about far more than the leadership of the town. It’s about the future of Israel. If Beit Shemesh does not take a turn toward modernization and pluralism, it will be locked on a trajectory to Haredization of the public square. (Full disclosure: As former director general of the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Department, Cohen was a close colleague of this reporter during his time as Agency spokesman.)

Tel Aviv is a similar canvas on which national themes are playing an outsize role. With its wealthy hi-rises and destitute southern slums, Tel Aviv epitomizes the growing wealth gap that has come to define the Israeli economy. The young, educated middle class the municipality so eagerly boasts of to the world can’t afford to own a home within its city limits.

The wealth gap, the educated young unable to buy apartments, a generation that keeps hearing about an Israeli prosperity that seems forever beyond its reach — these were the combustible ingredients of the 2011 mass protests.

Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, Huldai’s main challenger, has consciously adopted those themes in his campaign and made Facebook, the online platform on which the protests were organized, one of his own key platforms. The race is hardly about Tel Aviv anymore. It’s about the structure of the economy, and the distribution of Israel’s still-growing prosperity.

National politics are also intruding on local races by offering up candidates ejected from the Knesset. In Ra’anana, ex-mayor-turned-Kadima-MK Zeev Bielski is making a bid for his old seat. He’s reportedly running neck and neck with the current mayor, Nahum Hofree.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

In Ramat Gan, ousted former Likud MK Carmel Shama Hacohen is running for mayor in a campaign bankrolled partly by his family, which is heavily invested in real estate in the city.

Hofree has complained of the phenomenon, accusing his predecessor of returning to city politics merely because he had no alternative. “If [Kadima chair Shaul] Mofaz had more MKs around him” — that is, if Kadima hadn’t shrunk to just two seats — “I wouldn’t be competing against Bielski,” he told The Times of Israel recently.

Yet another sign of the growing ties between local and national politics can be seen in the immense energies being expended by the national parties to push their candidates for local office.

For parties like Jewish Home and Labor, there is much to be gained in showing that they are powerful at the grass roots; that they are not merely parties, but ideological and social “movements” — as distinct from Knesset competitors like Hatnua or Yesh Atid.

One national party, however, may yet come to regret the growing influence of local politics. In recent years, perhaps as a consequence of extended periods of political success, the Likud party machine has been badly neglected, even as the party’s brand at the ballot box continues to draw on relatively broad support.

At the local level, that has translated into outright chaos. With no meaningful central political organization to support, or even properly endorse, local candidates, many cities have seen the rise of two or more self-proclaimed Likud lists battling against each other for the national party’s supporters. Jerusalem’s mayoral race is the most spectacular example, with two center-right candidates, each with Likud members on their city council lists, fighting over a single city.

It’s telling that the party chairman himself, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has yet to endorse the official Likud candidate Lion, in part because of the support Barkat enjoys in the party’s Jerusalem branch. The same multiplicity of competing Likud lists can be seen in Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Lod, Ashkelon, Holon and many other medium and large cities.

Though it has ruled Israel for 24 of the past 36 years, the Likud’s internal institutions are poorly run and financially struggling. The party lacks the centralized planning or fundraising capacity to meaningfully influence and support, much less to discipline and control, local candidates who wish to use its hard-won brand.

The party’s constitution doesn’t even require that a local list obtain the Likud’s official imprimatur to run in its name.

It has already been suggested that the Likud’s run at the helm of the country may be ending as the party faces a leadership crisis and declining popularity. If its local political organization is any indication, it may not have the infrastructure to fight back against such a long-term decline.

American politician Tip O’Neill famously quipped that “all politics are local.” In Israel of late, it seems that all politics, even the most local, are increasingly national.

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