As Barkat bows out, at least 10 possible contenders for Jerusalem mayor

Field of contenders includes former candidate Moshe Lion, ultra-Orthodox council members, and secular rising star, but a probable run by a Likud minister could shake things up

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Moshe Lion (R) seen with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, during the wedding of Lion's daughter in Neve Ilan, June 19, 2016. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)
Moshe Lion (R) seen with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, during the wedding of Lion's daughter in Neve Ilan, June 19, 2016. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s announcement Sunday that he will not be seeking a third term and will instead run for Knesset on the Likud party ticket sent many hopefuls scrambling to map out the political landscape ahead of a mayoral run.

It is still too early to say who will end up as a main contender in the municipal elections in October, but there is already enough information, including a handful of announcements and even the occasional bus ad, to piece together an initial list of aspirants for the most prestigious and influential municipal post in Israel, the seat that propelled at least one recent occupant, Ehud Olmert, to the premiership.

One leading candidate is Moshe Lion, 56, who narrowly lost to Barkat in the previous municipal elections in 2013. He announced a second bid for mayor immediately after Barkat said he wouldn’t seek reelection on Sunday. In the past, he was backed by Likud and Yisrael Beytenu. It’s not clear which party or community would back his candidacy this time around.

Lion’s resume is impressive — he is a former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office and ex-chairman of Israel Railways — and his religious lifestyle and right-wing leanings have made him a relatively easy sell in the city’s many ultra-Orthodox communities and neighborhoods, where he won a majority in 2013.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (right) hold a press conference at the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem, February 23, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Still, he didn’t win enough ultra-Orthodox to seal the deal, possibly because of the bear hug he received at the time from now-defense minister Avigdor Liberman of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party. Nor did it help that he had abruptly relocated from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim shortly before the elections to be eligible to run.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin may be another leading contender, with many inside the ruling Likud party urging him to run. Elkin is close to the Haredi politicians who could turn out the vote in the city, and lived for many years in the capital before relocating to the settlement of Kfar Eldad to its southeast. He has also been a key figure in the increase of state funding for the cash-strapped capital as head of the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry in recent years.

Fellow Likud lawmaker David Amsalem, a former Jerusalem city council member himself, is also rumored to be considering a run.

They are not the only ex-Jerusalem politician who may be eyeing a return to city politics. MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu is a liberal but religious former city council member who aspires, it is said, to be the holy city’s first woman mayor.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria takes part in Knesset Finance Committee meeting on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Two ultra-Orthodox city politicians are also looking into running, hoping to capitalize on the 32 percent of the city’s population that identifies as Haredi — and whose voter share is even higher since the city’s Arab residents generally boycott the municipal vote.

Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitsch of the United Torah Judaism faction is seen as the leading Haredi candidate, alongside fellow party member Yitzhak Pindrus, also a deputy mayor.

Ofer Berkovitch, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and head of the Hitorerut (Awakening) faction, on July 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

There are also several secular candidates vying for the support of the younger generations, including 34-year-old Ofer Berkowitz, head of the Hitorerut faction, who enjoys the support of some of the city’s more liberal religious residents and is considered by many as a potential future mayor, even if not this time around.

Another contender, Yossi Havilio, a former municipal legal adviser-turned-Barkat critic, appeals mainly to the secular population.

Little-known Avi Salman has also announced he will run on a secular ticket.

However, the support of youngsters or secular residents alone isn’t likely to get a candidate elected, especially if that support is split between multiple contenders.

Veteran council member Meir Turgeman would possibly have been considered a leading candidate for mayor, after being the only opposition member in the municipality for several years. But his chances plummeted several weeks ago when he was arrested on graft suspicions.

Much can change in the seven months left until the October 30 elections, and the field of candidates is certain to eventually narrow as some strike political deals and others fail to find support in their core constituencies.

One thing is certain: Six months before its official start, the race to lead Jerusalem is already underway.

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