In 2013, critics of then-Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, freshly relocated from city of Givatayim near Tel Aviv, raised an eyebrow at the trained accountant’s evident unfamiliarity with the city he was seeking to run. The campaign of his rival, Nir Barkat, had called out his inscrutable alliance with both the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and secularist Yisrael Beytenu, branding it a kombina, or backdoor wheeling and dealing. Moreover, Lion, at the time, was candid in admitting he had no ties to leaders in East Jerusalem.
Five years after he was defeated by Barkat, Lion is again running for mayor, this time with five years’ experience on the city council under his belt, but far more competition in the October 30 race than he encountered during his first bid.
Now, the self-declared “proud Jerusalemite” is presenting the negative migration of young residents as the foremost challenge facing the capital, vowing to stem the tide “by force.” Underlining his “good relationships” with Arab municipal leaders, Lion is pledging to build basketball courts and soccer fields for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem and match its municipal budgets to the western, Jewish part of the city.
In the words of Lion, who describes himself as a dedicated adherent of a “live and let live” worldview, he’s the only one capable of “unifying” the city’s diverse population of some 850,000.
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel in his home in the city’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood, a restrained Lion was dismissive of the formidable challenge posed by an increasingly crowded field of candidates for the mayoralty.
One of them is Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a Likud heavyweight backed by Barkat and seen as likely to secure a coveted endorsement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Elkin is also gunning for the Haredi vote, and, like Lion, holds a right-wing political worldview, is modern Orthodox and is not originally from the city.
“He’s not a man of action,” and has “no management experience,” said Lion, a former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, of Elkin.
And what of the fact that the ultra-Orthodox community — which largely supported Lion in his 2013 race — could well field a candidate of its own, likely council member Yossi Deitch, capitalizing on the split secular and liberal Orthodox vote, spread thin between a handful of candidates? Lion pointed to past support he received from swaths of the ultra-Orthodox community: “This is what was five years ago, and so too, it will be again.”
An independent candidate, Lion has yet to receive any official political endorsements from higher up, not even from his longtime allies Aryeh Deri and Avigdor Liberman — the leaders of Shas and Yisrael Beytenu — nor from Netanyahu, his former boss, or Haredi factions in Jerusalem, though he confidently predicted he’ll ultimately clinch all of their support. In 2013, he received the backing of much of the Haredi community in the city, but Netanyahu refrained from endorsing him.
As Barkat seeks a seat in the Knesset and others — namely Elkin and as of last week, Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem — hope to move in the opposite direction, Lion said he has no political ambitions beyond the mayoralty.
“I don’t see it in any way as a political springboard. From here, I don’t intend to seek any other public role. If I wanted to do that I would have long been a minister in the government, and certainly a Knesset member. This is not an area that interests me. What interests me is mayor of Jerusalem, to invest as much as possible in the quality of life for the citizens,” he said.
Last Sunday, Azaria threw her hat in the ring, joining Elkin, Lion and Hitorerut candidate Ofer Berkovitch, who’s seen as a possible dark horse in the race, as well as Yossi Havilio, a former municipal legal adviser turned Barkat critic, the little-known Avi Salman and Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai (a resident of Mevasseret Zion, outside of Jerusalem), who recently announced in a radio interview that he would run for mayor but has not yet officially declared his candidacy.
East Jerusalem: ‘A failure spanning decades’
Allied with right-wing politicians and a vocal proponent of a unified Jerusalem, Lion was insistent in the interview that investment in the city’s long-neglected Arab neighborhoods was long overdue.
“On the issue of East Jerusalem, it is a failure spanning decades that not enough money was invested in its infrastructure and we must eliminate these lags and build as much infrastructure as we can to match it to the west of the city,” said Lion, who holds the neighborhoods portfolio in the city council.
The East Jerusalem neighborhoods have seen “improvement in past years, but certainly we need more and more budget funds so that the improvement will be significant, so that every school will have a basketball court, a soccer field, a place for the children to play,” he said.
“Today, unfortunately, in most schools in East Jerusalem they don’t have a place for the children to play. It’s sad to see, and it must be dealt with.”
Would he boost the East Jerusalem budgets considerably if he won? “Obviously,” said Lion.
Residents of East Jerusalem, making up an estimated 40 percent of the city’s 865,000-strong population, have boycotted local elections for the past five decades. At present, although Sur Baher neighborhood official Ramadan Dabash has announced that he’ll seek a seat on the council, there is no talk of an Arab mayoral candidate and no hint of an end to the Arab boycott of municipal elections that has been in effect since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
In the interview, Lion, a former head of the Jerusalem Development Authority, also pledged to build employment centers in East Jerusalem, opining that “the higher the economic level, the more terrorism levels drop.”
Wooing high-tech, young Israelis to capital
His envisaged East Jerusalem employment hubs are part of a larger effort by Lion, who said he was seeking to woo startups, companies and academic colleges with financial and tax incentives to set up shop in the city, turning the impoverished capital, over half of whose children live under the poverty line, into an “economic powerhouse.”
At the heart of his campaign is stopping the “painful” relocation of some 8,000 Jerusalem residents outside the city each year, many of them young Israelis who are driven to the suburbs by prohibitive housing prices in the capital or lured by more lucrative career opportunities in the economic center of the country, the Gush Dan region.
“The mayor should have stood at the entrance or exit to the city and stopped it [the trend] by force. And I intend to do that,” said Lion.
According to data by the Central Bureau of Statistic in 2016, the greatest concentration of Jerusalem expats have moved to Beit Shemesh (10.8%), followed by Tel Aviv (8.5%), Givat Ze’ev (5.9%), Beitar Illit (5.1%) and Bnei Brak (3.7%). Jerusalem nonetheless remains a young city, with half of its residents under the age of 24, according to the CBS.
To combat the exodus, Lion proposed reeling in more businesses — particularly in the high-tech sector — with financial and tax benefits, many of which, he notes, already exist though have yet to make an impact. He also was seeking to make Jerusalem a greater center of academic student life, drawing in the smaller academic colleges to relocate from across the country, and even funding the first year of tuition. Jerusalem is currently home to the Hebrew University, Bezalel Academy and a host of other smaller colleges.
“I want to bring these michlalot [private academic colleges] here, to Jerusalem, in order that the young people stay here. For this, I am willing to fund the students for at least one year of study so that they stay here in Jerusalem.”
As for soaring housing prices in the capital and the snail’s pace of construction, Lion attributed the stalled building in the capital to city hall’s red tape, rather than to the reluctance to build in certain areas over diplomatic concerns and international pressure.
“It’s true, it’s painful that we aren’t building in Givat Hamatos and aren’t building in Ramat Shlomo and these places, but these aren’t the reasons the young people are leaving,” he said, referring to Jewish neighborhoods seen by the international community as East Jerusalem.
“It’s true these housing units would have been helpful, but the real problem is within the [other] neighborhoods,” he said, vowing to overhaul the bureaucracy.
Citing a single urban renewal building project in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe that took 14 years to complete, even preceding Barkat’s 10-year reign, he called it a situation that “demands explanation.”
Shabbat and the Temple Mount
On matters pertaining to the closure of businesses on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, Lion said he will stick to the status quo — no to commerce, yes to entertainment venues and restaurants such as the First Station promenade.
He won’t comment on the Temple Mount, though he said he visited the site as head of the Jerusalem Development Authority and found the experience “interesting and moving,” or the issue of the egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall.
“All of these issues of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, I leave to the government to decide,” he said.
The Temple Mount houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and is considered Islam’s third holiest site. It is the holy place in Judaism, revered by Jews as the location of the biblical Jewish temples.
Dubbing himself a “Hasid of ‘live and let live,'” Lion claimed to be the “unifier” of the fragmented Jerusalem electorate, which though marred by occasional religious and political tensions, he said enjoys relative normalcy.
“In the end, we see everyone lives generally peacefully, side by side,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.