Nir Barkat versus Moshe Lion

An unexpectedly bitter battle for Jerusalem enters its final stage

In less than two weeks, some 550,000 residents can either reelect the incumbent mayor or replace him with a newcomer from Givatayim

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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)
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)

Immediately after Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion shook Raziel Basher’s hand during a recent campaign event in the capital’s Mahane Yehuda market, the 21-year-old cheese vendor said he was sure he’d vote for him. “He looks alright. I read his flyer and saw what he wants to do, it sounds good,” smiled Basher. But then his co-worker at Basher Fromagerie told him that Lion was actually not from Jerusalem. “That’s the main problem with him,” Basher’s colleague said snidely. “He’s crazy — if he doesn’t live here, why does he come here to be our mayor?”

Lion (pronounced Leh-on), all smiles in his yellow-green Lacoste polo shirt, had already marched on, making his way through the market’s alleyways, shaking as many hands as possible. A stroll through Mahane Yehuda is a mandatory stop on the itinerary of every Jerusalem mayoral hopeful.

Lion’s campaign slogan is “Putting the residents first,” and a handful of his volunteers did their utmost to spread this message to the market masses, carrying a huge banner, giving out brochures and blaring his campaign song in a never-ending loop. But the discussion he sparked in the cheese shop underlined the contours of what has become an unexpectedly bitter mayoral battlefield.

An accountant from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, Lion officially relocated to Jerusalem just a few months ago. Until he appeared on the scene, the reelection of the generally popular incumbent, Nir Barkat, seemed like a done deal.

Moshe Lion (L) visits the Mahane Yehuda market in central Jerusalem, August 5, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Moshe Lion (L) visits the Mahane Yehuda market in central Jerusalem, August 5, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two weeks before the municipal elections on October 22, polls still predict a Barkat victory, but Lion, a skillful political wheeler-dealer, has made the race somewhat suspenseful. He is the official candidate of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list, and, more importantly, is backed by the majority of the capital’s Haredi communities. (The Times of Israel spoke to both Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion at length; clink on the links for the full interviews.)

The Shas party’s Council of Torah Sages, in its first statement after the death Monday of the movement’s spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, came out this week in support of Lion, partly because he’s a “member of our ethnic group,” a reference to Lion’s Sephardic background. Endorsing Lion was the late rabbi’s “last directive,” the council’s three rabbis declared, promising “God’s blessing and longevity” to all those who supported his candidacy. Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri is known as one of Lion’s key backers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far not endorsed any candidate. (“Why would he stick his head in?” noted one insider. “Whoever wins will have to crawl to him anyway.”)

Lion, who headed Netanyahu’s bureau in the late 1990s, denies he was pushed into running by Yisrael Beytenu boss (and his close personal friend) Avigdor Liberman. Since he entered the race, the campaign has become rather nasty, rife with political mudslinging and (mostly anonymous) personal attacks.

Lion says the city is dirty and poorly managed, accusing Barkat of working ineffectively, having the wrong priorities and neglecting the city’s residents. Barkat responds by asserting that Jerusalemites are satisfied with his work and that he’s reviving the capital, and in turns tries to portray his challenger as a political puppet who was imported from a different city to do the bidding of his unpleasant cronies.

“It’s awkward that somebody who is not from the city wants to come and raise the standard of the city,” Barkat said. “I am a Jerusalemite my entire life, it’s the mission of my life. The residents will decide what’s good for them, not Deri and not Yvet [Liberman], and not a guy from Givatayim.”

Nir Barkat  with a vendor at Mahane Yahuda market, December, 2007 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Nir Barkat with a vendor at Mahane Yahuda market, December, 2007 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The fact that Lion is not a born-and-bred Jerusalemite and the claim that he was persuaded to run by political power brokers has become the campaign’s central theme. “On October 22, Jerusalemites vote for Jerusalem — and not for the man from Givatayim,” billboards scream, without mentioning the names of either candidate. A whole host of satirical videos making more or less the same point (also of anonymous authorship) were uploaded to YouTube.

“The vast majority of the residents of Jerusalem understand why you need a Jerusalemite whose heart and soul is all into managing and leading Jerusalem,” Barkat told The Times of Israel during a recent interview in his office, on the top floor of the municipality building in Safra Square. “Jerusalemites don’t want to gamble on someone who doesn’t know the city, who doesn’t live and breathe it. There’s a big question mark on why he’s actually here. Who’s pushing you to come here?”

Barkat hesitates to accuse Lion of corruption outright, yet he repeatedly drops unsubtle hints. “The residents of Jerusalem are a bit insulted by all kinds of kombinot,” he said, using the Hebrew word for sly deals. “Tell me who your friends are, I tell you who you are.”

Then-director-general of the Prime Minister's Office Avigdor Lieberman, center, with Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Lion (right), December 25, 1996. (photo credit: Flash90)
Then-director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office Avigdor Liberman, center, with Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Lion (right), December 25, 1996. (photo credit: Flash90)

Lion shrugs off such attacks. “Both Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri are chairmen of very significant parties in Israel’s democratic system. There is absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t support me, or why I wouldn’t conduct negotiations with them.”

Fending off claims that he doesn’t know Jerusalem because he’s not from here, Lion notes that in the last 15 years he has spent a lot of time in the capital, as the head of Netanyahu’s office and, since June 2008, as chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority.

“During this time, I got to learn very well the problems Jerusalemites have,” Lion said. “I worked a lot for Jerusalem, I developed the city — the metropolitan parks, the bike trail, the Old Train station area, the Old City compound, the industrial zones. I was responsible for all that.”

While Barkat supporters try to ridicule his candidacy and question his integrity, Lion has fired his own offensives. Two and a half weeks before the elections, for instance, Lion decided that “the time has come to reveal to the public” that Barkat used to have warm words for his former colleague and now-rival. On October 3, Lion posted a letter on Facebook that Barkat had written two years ago, in which the mayor praised Lion’s work at the Jerusalem Development Authority. Lion had a “significant part” in the organization’s success, Barkat wrote in July 2011, adding that he had “full trust” in him. Lion’s aides also like to point out that Barkat used to be affiliated with the centrist Kadima party, seeking to portray him as a closeted leftist.

Bickering aside, the question remains: Are most voting Jerusalemites content with Barkat, or are they ready to switch to someone who is not from the city, whose daughter still goes to school in Givatayim (not unreasonably, since she is in sixth grade, and would have had to enter an unfamiliar school for the one year before high school), and who doesn’t know that there are cinemas open on Shabbat in the city (as a recent Hebrew interview exposed)?

“You of all people should understand me better,” Lion told The Times of Israel’s two Jerusalem-resident, non-Jerusalem-born interviewers recently in his campaign headquarters in the Romema neighborhood. “What are you actually saying, that an immigrant from the US could never be the mayor of Jerusalem? Stanley Fischer can’t be the governor of the Bank of Israel because he made aliya? What kind of question is that? The real question should be whether you understand the material you’re working with, whether you know the city well.”

“What’s the difference if someone is from Givatayim or from New York? I currently run for mayor of Jerusalem — the question is whether I have the right skills I need to manage this city and to make the right decisions, at the right time and the right place. I do think I have all the appropriate skills and I could be an excellent mayor,” Lion added.

By now, unlike Raziel Basher in the shuk, most Jerusalemites do know who he is. “In the last months my exposure to the public was very great,” he said. “By the way, most of that was a consequence of smears from the other side, and that also helped to publicize me.”

Yet it appears doubtful whether the heightened attention worked to Lion’s benefit: The last poll released to the public, in early September, suggested that only 12 percent of respondents intend to vote for him, compared to 44 percent who favor Barkat. Unsurprisingly, Lion doesn’t believe in these numbers, noting that internal polls predict much better results for him.

Barkat, though, is adamant that he’s doing enough to prevail. He inherited “one of the poorest cities of our country,” Barkat said. “Unfortunately, poverty and education — all parameters were going in the wrong direction. When you really understand the trends that were here before I decided to become mayor, it raises a big concern. It raised a big concern for me so I decided to retire from all my business careers — that was almost 12 years ago — and ever since I’ve worked for a shekel a year for the future of the city.”

He hailed his success in everything from tripling the number of new jobs a year, to quadrupling cultural events, fixing roads more quickly, getting more kids into youth movements, having more youngsters enlisting in the army. “The residents see that we haven’t left anything behind.” That adds up, he said, to “a very strong foundation” for his next term.

120,000 votes are needed to win; the Haredim account for 85,000

Let’s take a look at the numbers. Jerusalem’s electoral mathematics look like this: for a candidate to be elected mayor, he needs about 120,000 votes; the city’s Haredim alone account for about 85,000 votes. In addition to most Haredim, Lion’s team says it expects nearly 40,000 votes from Likud-Beytenu members, which would put him over the top.

His opponents, however, point out that neither the city’s Likud members nor its Haredim are a monolithic group that will blindly vote for Lion. Indeed, Barkat enjoys the support of many secular and national-religious Jerusalemites, some of whom might nominally be Likud members yet still cast their ballot for the incumbent. He has also received official nods from prominent national-religious rabbis Shlomo Aviner and Haim Druckman.

Also, while Lion was officially endorsed by the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, an important Haredi faction called Bnei Torah last week decided to field an independent candidate, Haim Epstein. Although Epstein has no chances of winning, his candidacy could potentially cost Lion thousands of votes.

Nir Barkat, on Jaffo street in the center of Jerusalem, September 2, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Nir Barkat on Jaffa Street in the center of Jerusalem, September 2, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The mainstream Haredi parties’ support for the national-religious Lion is the subject of much speculation. For Barkat, the matter is obvious: “[I]t’s clear to me that Moshe Lion struck a very simple deal with the Haredim,” he told Haaretz last week. “An empty white page, signature at the bottom, fill it in. Because he is absolutely dependent on the Haredim. The internal agreements that exist in [the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox] United Torah Judaism relate to who he will appoint to be in charge of planning and building.”

Lion categorically denies these allegations. “I do have their support, and it continues to grow, but I promise you that I don’t have any agreement with them,” he told The Times of Israel. Rather, he explained, the Haredim know and appreciate him from his days as head of Netanyahu’s bureau. Lion also conducted Likud’s coalition negotiations earlier this year, which included many heated debates with UTJ and Shas.

Since Barkat has been endorsed by Labor Party chair Shelly Yachimovich, Lion — who enjoys the explicit backing of virtually all Likud-Beytenu ministers and MKs, from the relatively moderate Yuval Steinitz to the hardliner Moshe Feiglin — has tried to depict the mayoral race as one of right-wing versus left-wing. Lion was also endorsed by Arieh King, who is vying for a spot on the city council. King — who runs the Israel Land Fund, which helps Jews acquire property in East Jerusalem — has been plastering the city with anti-Arab slogans and calls to “Judaize Jerusalem.” Barkat is no left-winger, but he does have the tacit support of the city’s more progressive parties. Initially, the left-wing Meretz party planned to field its own candidate for mayor, Pepe Alalu, but withdrew in order not to steal votes from Barkat.

Both Lion and Barkat say they oppose any possible partition of the city in a future peace agreement, and support Jews settling in the eastern part of the city, which many believe will one day become the capital of a Palestinian state. Lion, in our interview, acknowledged that he had no real connections with East Jerusalem’s Arab residents; Barkat has spoken consistently about Israel’s responsibility to the Arab population of the unified city, and highlighted the decline in violence in East Jerusalem under his mayorship.

What about local politics? True to his slogan, Lion promises to do more for the average Joe Schmo, pledging to use his government connections to get more state funding for municipal needs. “My vision says that I need to improve the quality of life for Jerusalemites. That’s the most important thing: I want Jerusalemites to get up in the morning and first of all see a clean city. It can’t be that the city is as filthy as it is today,” he said. Sanitation is one of his favorite topics, together with the high prices of housing and the state of transportation and education in the city.

Moshe Lion with Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elikin and other supporters at a recent campaign event (photo credit: courtesy)
Moshe Lion with Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elikin and other supporters at a recent campaign event (photo credit: courtesy)

“The budget today per pupil is NIS 5,300 ($1,490) in Jerusalem, and NIS 17,000 ($4,776) in Tel Aviv. There is no reason why it should be a third,” Lion charged. “Whoever wants to be mayor of Jerusalem needs to act to increase these budgets.”

Barkat admits that things aren’t perfect, but insists they have been getting much better ever since he took the helm of the city five years ago. Results in the matriculation exam moved from below to above national average; 15,000 new apartments were created; more roads are being repaired and the streets have never been cleaner, he said. (This year he added “100 new guys” to sweep them, he noted.)

“I received a city with very negative trends, and within five years I’ve turned the city around. The atmosphere has changed; there’s a lot of hope,” Barkat declared.

And that’s just the beginning. The mayor has even bigger plans for his second term. He plans to create 100,000 new jobs in the city, and “we’re going to lay two new light rail tracks, plus two more branches, and a cable car, and we’re going to dramatically increase investment in the roads,” he said. “And we’re going to continue the current trends in culture sports, education, investment in the neighborhoods.”

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and both the Barkat and Lion camps have the numbers to prove that Jerusalem is either up and coming or going down the drain. The vote on October 22 may be less about which of them is right. Rather, some 550,000 Jerusalem voters will decide which contender will better advance their interests in the city.

The Times of Israel interviews Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion.

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