As party slates are finalized, a tussle of two cities takes shape

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv divide is being reified on Knesset candidate rosters, as juggernaut Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing ideology helps pop the myth of the Tel Aviv bubble

Tal Schneider
A statue of an anti-Netanyahu demonstrator holding an Israeli flag seen on display at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv December 18, 2020, (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A statue of an anti-Netanyahu demonstrator holding an Israeli flag seen on display at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv December 18, 2020, (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In March 2020, a record low of only eight parties were voted into the Knesset. In March 2021, it’s likely more parties will make it in, but it seems that just two cities will leave an outsized mark on the personnel and ideological makeup of the factions: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

There has always been a tension between the country’s two largest cities: staid and conservative Jerusalem, laden with the weight of its spiritual and political importance, versus its wealthier, more carefree progressive cousin Tel Aviv, the nation’s economic and cultural hub.

As party slates are finalized and registered before Thursday’s midnight deadline, those municipal tensions can be seen interwoven through candidate lineups.

Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has been in national politics for all of two years, will be running in his fourth election on the Likud slate, where he is expected to feature fairly high when it’s finally submitted on Thursday.

But he is far from the race’s only Safra Square alumnus, some of whom are making a run at the Knesset for the first time.

Likud party supporters at an election campaign tour in Jerusalem, September 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe, who is heading the Jewish Home party, announced Thursday night that her religious right-wing party would not run in the elections in a last-minute deal with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. Her far-right party had not been expected to make it into the Knesset alone, but efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have her join ranks with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, née National Union, failed.

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party presents his party slate to the Central Elections committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Moshe signed a deal to withdraw Jewish Home from the election, support Yamina and become a minister for the party if it’s in the next coalition.

Avraham Bezalel, another Jerusalem deputy mayor (the city has seven), has been placed on the Shas Party candidate list. While his No. 11 slot is outside the seven or eight seats the party is predicted to get, thanks to the Norwegian law (which allows MKs-turned-ministers to vacate their Knesset seats and hand them over to party members who didn’t initially get in, thus giving coalition parties extra representation), his Knesset hopes may not be totally dashed. Bezalel has served in the city hall as a member of the Shas faction since 2016.

Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing New Hope party includes two also-rans from Jerusalem’s mayoral race in 2018: Ofer Berkovitch and Ze’ev Elkin.

Jerusalem Mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch speaks at his campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, on October 31, 2018. ( Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Berkovitch, whose secular and liberal messaging boosted him to an unsuccessful runoff with Moshe Lion, has chaired the Hitorerut faction, the largest party in the city council.

View of a sign promoting Ze’ev Elkin, mayoral candidate for the Jerusalem municipal elections, in central Jerusalem, on October 28, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He brings a Jerusalem-infused progressive bent to Sa’ar’s party, which leans heavily to the right while also attempting to position itself as the vanguard of the anti-Netanyahu camp.

At 13th on the ticket, Berkovitch is well behind No. 3 Ze’ev Elkin, a longtime Likud minister who underwhelmed in the 2018 Jerusalem mayoral race.

Elkin joked about their past rivalry on Wednesday, tweeting: “Welcome Ofer @oferberkovitch. Really, we could have run together back in Jerusalem. As we’ve said, Gideon Sa’ar knows how to unite.”


Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) down Route 1, Tel Avivis are also working their way into poll positions, mainly with parties that have a more center-left lean that jibes with the city’s vibe.

Freshly elected Labor leader Merav Michaeli is a Tel Aviv native, and the city runs through her blood. Until Thursday afternoon, she held the fate of the city’s current mayor, Ron Huldai, in her hands.

Huldai has helmed the city for the past 22 years, overseeing its economic renaissance and winning popularity by keeping it a bastion of secular liberalism. But his leap to national politics has been a roller coaster. While polls initially showed him easily entering the Knesset, lately he has seen support for his The Israelis party dive considerably as Labor has been boosted by its new leader.

An elections campaign poster of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new political party in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Furious negotiations between Michaeli and Huldai to merge the factions for a joint run failed on Thursday, leaving Huldai the option of trying to run on his own and stealing a few votes from the center-left camp without any real chance of getting in, or swallowing his pride and dropping out. At around  6 p.m. Thursday, he chose the latter.

If he dis stay in the race, he would have faced off again against Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party. In 2013, four years after entering the Knesset, Horowitz tried to go the other way and ran for mayor against Huldai. He snagged nearly 40% of the vote but fell short.

Both Horowitz and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg live near Rabin Square, the beating heart of the city’s civic life.

Thousands of Israelis attend a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On the ritzier north side of town lives Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. The neighborhood has become synonymous with secular, liberal elite and true to form, Lapid is a champion of secularism and is seen as the candidate of choice among many of the city’s upwardly mobile as well as the suburban bourgeois.

Currently, polls put Yesh Atid as the top party in the so-called anti-Netanyahu camp, but on that front Lapid is facing a tough challenge from another Tel Avivi, one who does not fit the city’s supposed mold.

Blowing off bubbles

Gideon Sa’ar may live in Tel Aviv, but ideologically he is ensconced in Jerusalem’s stony mindset. A former DJ and longtime Likud member and minister, Saar has always stuck out in some ways. Since returning to politics two years ago, Sa’ar became the face of the anti-Netanyahu wing within Likud, and since being essentially forced out of the party, is now the great right hope for dethroning the prime minister from the outside.

Sa’ar himself tracks closely with the city: socially progressive, secular, business-oriented and married to the media elite (his wife, Geula Even-Sa’ar, was an anchor for Kan until his political comeback).

Gideon Sa’ar gives a press conference as he meets with several Israeli hospital directors at their protest tent outside the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem demanding equal budgeting from the Ministry of Finance, on January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Politically, though, he is a right-wing conservative, even further to the right than many in Likud.  Some believe his split personality could be a breath of fresh air in a political scene that has grown stale after four election campaigns in close succession.

In some ways, Sa’ar’s residence vs. ideology split belies the myth of the Tel Aviv bubble, the idea that the city is politically and culturally cut off from the rest of the country.

For years, some people tried to point to the fact that Tel Aviv was underrepresented in the Knesset and the cabinet as proof that it was disconnected from the national political conversation.

Sure, Tel Avivis sometimes made it into the big leagues, but it’s Jerusalem that has run the show as of late. The last Tel Aviv resident to hold a top-three ministerial post was Ehud Barak, who stepped down as defense minister in 2013.

Israelis exercise on the beach in Tel Aviv during a nation lockdown. Israel went into its 3rd lockdown a few days ago. December 30, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the last five years, Tel Aviv progressives have watched as successive right-religious governments have whittled away at years of liberal and secular gains while expanding religious hegemony, leading to increased frustration.

Demonstrators clash with police during a protest march against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on their way to PM Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour. September 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the past, Tel Avivis might confine their protests to Tel Aviv. But every Saturday night for months, thousands of demonstrators have made the journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to protest against Netanyahu outside his official residence in the capital.

In the past, only Jerusalemites and their ilk protested in Jerusalem (the fact that Jerusalem has no large car-free space like Rabin Square likely helped keep the demonstrations in Tel Aviv), but the bubble, if there ever was one, has popped.

Even if Netanyahu hangs on to his prime minister’s chair, clinging to power will almost certainly mean bringing Tel Aviv into the fold. And if he doesn’t, Israel may have its first Tel Avivi prime minister since Barak beat Netanyahu in 1999.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed