Could Rachel Azaria’s candidacy pave way for ultra-Orthodox mayor in Jerusalem?

With surprise entry of Orthodox, pluralistic MK, the race to succeed Nir Barkat is more open than ever. What’s missing is an ultra-Orthodox candidate. That might now change

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria at the Eli Horowitz Conference for Economy and Society, held by the Israel Institute of Democracy, in Jerusalem, on June 19, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria at the Eli Horowitz Conference for Economy and Society, held by the Israel Institute of Democracy, in Jerusalem, on June 19, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria’s Sunday announcement that she will run for mayor of Jerusalem could pave the way for an ultra-Orthodox candidate — possibly deputy mayor Yossi Deitch — to throw his hat into the already crowded ring. And the further splitting of the secular and modern Orthodox vote that could be caused by Azaria’s unexpected candidacy might even give that candidate a path to victory.

The decision by Azaria, a former deputy mayor and city council member, could have an immediate impact on maneuvering ahead of the October 30 vote to choose a successor to Nir Barkat: Before her announcement, the Yerushalmim party, which she founded and represented before leaving the council to join the Knesset in 2015, had been on the verge of signing a deal to support Ofer Berkovitch of the secular Hitorerut party. It’s now not clear whether any such deal will go ahead; neither is it yet clear whether Azaria will run as the head of a Yerushalmim ticket.

The modern Orthodox 40-year-old Azaria, the first female candidate in the race, has long campaigned for women’s rights and worked to ease financial strain on young families in the capital. She served as a council member for almost seven years before accepting the number five slot in Kulanu and moving from city hall to the Knesset as an MK for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party.

In declaring her intention to run for mayor, the longtime resident of the city thanked Kahlon but said she wanted to return to serve her city — indicating, though not stating definitively, that her Knesset career was coming to an end.

“Now, with more experience and public roles, I am returning to work for Jerusalem — from Jerusalem,” she said.

Ofer Berkovitch, co-founder and chairman of the Hitorerut movement. December 15, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Her candidacy may draw support from more centrist voters — her Yerushalmim party supported pluralism in the city. But as a woman, a pluralist and a relative centrist, she is unlikely to gain much support from the ultra-Orthodox community, which makes up some 37% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, according to recent CBS data.

The likely losers from her candidacy will be the several secular mayoral candidates, including 34-year-old Berkovitch, seen as a possible dark horse in the race; Yossi Havilio, a former municipal legal adviser turned Barkat critic; 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.

Those close to Berkovitch slammed Azaria, saying she had first left the council in the middle of her term for a job in the Knesset and now wanted to leave the Knesset mid-term for a job in the council, Ynet reported.

Likud party members Zeev Elkin (left) and former Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion on March 26, 2015, as Likud begins its coalition talks (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

One of the winners of Azaria’s candidacy could be Deputy Mayor Moshe Lion, who lost to Barkat in the 2015 elections. His path to the helm of the municipality was made more complicated when Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin announced his candidacy earlier this month. With Azaria possibly skimming away some of the more centrist votes from Elkin, but perhaps less likely to take many votes from the more familiar candidate Lion, who has a core of committed followers, the latter may gain from the splintering of the field.

Both Lion and Elkin are Likud members, both religious, and both seek the support of the ultra-Orthodox constituency — which, to date, is not fielding a candidate of its own.

Although neither Lion nor Elkin has received the official endorsement of the city’s ultra-Orthodox communities, Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who backed Lion in 2013, may well do so again this time. “Jerusalem needs a mayor who doesn’t come from a certain community but rather someone everyone can unite around,” the ultra-Orthodox Deri was quoted as saying in late May, adding: “Lion is one of the names [that fits this criterion].”

Conversely, Elkin received the endorsement of outgoing mayor Barkat, a fellow Likud member and a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Elkin, too, is hoping for the endorsement of ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Yosef Deitch on March 3, 2013. (Flash 90)

Deputy Health Minister and United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman appeared to test Elkin and Lion earlier this month, with a call on them to promise to shutter the nightlife in the Mahane Yehuda market in exchange for the support of his Gur Hasidic sect. Both candidates rejected the demand.

All of this means the real winner of Azaria’s announcement may turn out to be Deitch, who Ynet news said Monday was likely to now run for mayor. And with both the secular and right-wing votes split, the endorsement of the city’s ultra-Orthodox leadership might even open a path for him to the mayor’s office.

Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush at the opening of the ministry’s crisis center, in preparation for the opening of the school year, August 31, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the first of Barkat’s two election wins, in 2008, his key rival, Meir Porush, came from the ultra-Orthodox community; in the second, in 2013, Lion had most of the ultra-Orthodox support. In both campaigns, had the ultra-Orthodox community been solidly behind its leaders’ candidate, the result might well have been different.

According to some ultra-Orthodox media reports earlier this month, Litzman has told Netanyahu he now supports Deitch, a Slonim Hasid. A reported statement from his office last month gave a hint of this:

“If it is decided to present a Haredi candidate, we will support him for the leadership of the Jerusalem municipality,” the statement, reported by the Kikar HaShabat website, said. “If not, we will bring the question before the rabbinical leaders for their decision, no sooner than two months before elections.”

One other factor that could entirely remake the electoral race: if an Arab candidate entered the field and/or the city’s Arab electorate decided to break precedent and vote. Arab residents make up an estimated 40 percent of Jerusalem’s 865,000-strong population. 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.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat celebrates with supporters after winning a hard-fought reelection race, Wednesday, October 23, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Marissa Newman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this article.

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