As Israel heads to municipal elections mid-war, here’s what you need to know

The war against Hamas forced 2 postponements of the vote, but it will finally take place on Tuesday – except in those parts of the country that have been evacuated

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Ballot envelopes for the municipal elections in Jerusalem -- yellow for the mayor; white for the council -- pictured at a warehouse on February 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ballot envelopes for the municipal elections in Jerusalem -- yellow for the mayor; white for the council -- pictured at a warehouse on February 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Municipal elections have sneaked up on Israel. On Tuesday, seven million Israelis are eligible to vote for mayors or local council heads in 197 municipal authorities and 44 regional councils in a ballot that was originally scheduled for October 31, 2023, three weeks after the start of the war against the Hamas terror group in the wake of its devastating October 7 massacre in the western Negev.

Entire areas of Israel are still under attack, though, and elections in the areas that were evacuated near Gaza and the border with Lebanon will be held nine months from now, on November 19.

This later date will mainly be in effect in the towns of Kiryat Shmona, Shlomi and Sderot, plus regional councils in the south and the north that are home to kibbutzim, moshavim and several Arab villages. A total of 180,000 citizens who live in those areas will not vote on Tuesday.

The Interior Ministry will conduct security evaluations every two hours on election day, in coordination with the IDF Home Front Command and the Israel Police, to ensure voters’ safety, the ministry’s Director General Ronen Peretz said at a pre-election briefing earlier this month. Should Hamas or Hezbollah attacks complicate voting, the ministry will issue instructions to citizens as to how they can vote, and could even call a halt to voting and postpone it to a later date if necessary, he said.

Until Hamas’s October 7 attack, in which terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped 253, the lion’s share of political attention was snagged by the coalition’s radical judicial overhaul plan. However, October 7 and the ongoing war have changed just about everything, and now the main issue for Israelis, including those who don’t live near a border, is security in all its aspects, including expectations from the military and the political echelons.

How the public feels about its national political leadership’s performance before and after October 7, and whether the electorate will use Tuesday’s local elections to send a message in that regard, could be one of the key features of the vote.

By the numbers

The total number of eligible voters for election day will be 7,190,920. They will vote in 75 cities, 114 regional councils, and 44 local councils across the country.

There are 24,910 candidates running for election on 4,500 party slates, including 801 candidates for mayor, of whom only 83 are women. Voters cast two ballots — for the head of the council, and for a council slate.

Approximately 50,000 officials are involved in staging the elections, which will cost the country some NIS 1 billion ($273 million).

Because of the war with Hamas, some 400,000 voters will cast ballots away from their home municipal jurisdictions, a huge increase over the 95,000 such ballots cast in the last municipal elections, in 2018.

This increase is due to the large number of soldiers currently serving on active duty of different kinds at present, as well as an increase in the number of people who have been injured as a result of the conflict and who will need to vote from hospitals.

What is the expected voter turnout rate?

Usually, voter turnout rates in municipal elections among the Jewish public are much lower than those in general elections: some 71 percent in national elections as opposed to 59% in municipal.

Election campaign posters of candidates for the Jerusalem municipal elections, in Jerusalem, February 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The data from the Arab sector, which makes up about a fifth of Israel’s population, presents a different picture. Very low rates in national elections are the norm, compared to especially high rates in municipal elections — 50% in national and 80% in municipal.

It is difficult to predict Tuesday’s turnout because the bulk of media attention has gone to the war rather than the elections. There is a general fear of rocket attacks from the north and, possibly, from the south, aimed at the center of the country on election day, which may cause people to stay home.

Most workplaces have to give their employees the day off, which is designed to encourage people to go and vote. The question is whether the public will use the day off for its intended purpose. In some areas, overall low turnout could boost the prospects of ultra-Orthodox parties, whose voters’ turnout is generally extremely high.

What is the political status of municipalities in Israel?

The municipalities manage educational and health institutions, the local economy, transportation, infrastructure, construction and culture in their cities.

However, political power is highly centralized in the national government, meaning that local authorities’ decisions are subordinate to heavy governmental regulation.

This issue causes constant tension between mayors and the government, which for most of the past few decades has been led by the Likud party.

Families of Israelis who were murdered by Hamas terrorists at the Nova festival during the massacre on October 7, wave Israeli flags and photographs of their loved ones as they march towards the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There is also a widespread problem of corruption in municipalities. During peacetime, the issue sees high coverage in the media — and indifference from the public.

Why aren’t there more women mayors and council heads?

Women are in a significant minority among mayors and local council heads and members. Over the years, gender equality organizations have been trying to raise the number of women elected to lead local authorities, but the problem also stems from a dearth of women candidates.

It is also common in Israel for former army generals to enter municipal politics, which is another cause of the female minority.

In the current elections, barely 10% of mayoral candidates (excluding council members) are women. Among Jewish Israelis, the number is higher, at 17%. The municipal elections in 2018 ended with women making up 6% of mayors, meaning 14 women were elected.

Can soldiers and reservists on the frontlines vote?

The IDF enables every soldier, even those fighting in Gaza, to vote. The army has set up polling stations for an early election process called “blue envelopes” that began on February 20, including inside Gaza.

This handout photo published on February 20, 2024, shows IDF soldiers operating a military polling station. (Israel Defense Forces)

The blue envelopes are also used in prisons, for both prisoners and guards, and in hospitals and rehabilitation wards where thousands of IDF soldiers are recovering from injuries. Counting the soldiers’ votes, and ensuring no double votes, will take a little longer than usual. Election officials do not expect final results on Tuesday, and maybe not even on Wednesday.

Which large cities’ elections are worth following?

Tel Aviv: Except for the capital, Jerusalem, this is the most important city as an influential economic and cultural center.

Tel Aviv’s budget is equal to that of a medium-sized ministry and stands at NIS 7 billion ($1.9 billion), with NIS 3 billion ($820 million) dedicated to municipal infrastructure development alone. The city also has the biggest cultural budget in the country except for the Culture Ministry.

The leading candidate is the current mayor of 25 years, Ron Huldai, a brigadier general in the reserves who had a military career as a fighter pilot. Huldai is running against Maj. Gen. (res.) Orna Barbivai, the highest-ranking woman in the IDF. As the former head of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate and former economy minister in the previous government, Barbivai has plenty of experience in managing massive organizations and has the support of the Knesset’s second-largest political party, Yesh Atid, which she represented as an MK.

Barbivai’s challenge is that she is competing with a popular incumbent.

Yesh Atid lawmaker Orna Barbivai announces her run for Tel Aviv mayor, from an event space overlooking the Tel Aviv Municipality, June 21, 2023. (Elad Gutman)

Jerusalem: Mayor Moshe Lion is expected to be elected for another five-year term. The campaign in Jerusalem is almost boring as no real challenger is running against Lion, who has earned respect for his efforts to improve infrastructure and education in East Jerusalem, an area where many former mayors refused to invest resources.

Mayor Moshe Lion speaks in Jerusalem, July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Haifa: There were high expectations for Haifa’s current mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem, the first woman in the role, when she was elected in 2018.

However, over the years, she has had endless arguments with the public over the environment, construction, and, most notably, the wild boars that have run rampant across the city. Rotem wanted to prevent the “agricultural killing” of the animals, while the residents were horrified by their quick breeding and the mess they made.

Rotem is expected to lose to former mayor Yonah Yahav.

File: Haifa Mayoral Candidate Einat Kalisch Rotem casts her ballots at a voting station on the morning of the Municipal Elections, on October 30, 2018, in Haifa. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Bnei Brak: Because of severe health problems in the most crowded ultra-Orthodox city in the world, Bnei Brak elections continue to captivate the public, despite the war.

The added interest in the elections in the city also stems from the fact that this is the first time that a non-Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox candidate is running for mayor, current Health Minister Uriel Buso of Shas.

Shas MK Uriel Buso attends a Knesset committee meeting on May 16, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nazareth: In the Arab community, the elections follow a year of soaring crime and murder rates. Before October 7, one of Nazareth’s city council members even withdrew his candidacy because of threats to his life, as did some candidates in other Arab cities.

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