Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Sunday apologized to Jerusalem’s secular mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch for appearing to compare him to the devil, saying his remarks had been misunderstood.
Jeruslemites vote Tuesday in a run-off between Berkovitch and rival Moshe Lion for the mayoralty. Lion is seen as likely to win if Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community turns out in large numbers to support him.
“Minister Deri did not say that Berkovitch was the devil, in fact the opposite,” said a statement from the ultra-Orthodox minister’s office, noting that Deri “does not know him personally but he has a positive impression of him.”
Deri sparked an outcry earlier when, in a video, he appeared to compare Berkovitch to the devil and said he would “desecrate” the city.
“The devil issued a tzav 8 and drafted all his soldiers to my great sorrow,” Deri said in the video released on Saturday evening, referring to an emergency army call-up order. “The devil is enlisting everyone.”
“All the great rabbis of Israel support him against a non-religious candidate who literally wants to continue to transform Jerusalem and turn our holy city into a city like any other city,” Deri said of Lion.
The subsequent statement from his office said that Deri meant that there is division and argument among the ultra-Orthodox factions in Jerusalem and that the devil has entered them to cause this division, which, he feared, was likely to cause the religious candidate, Shas-backed Lion, to lose in the mayor run-off vote on Tuesday.
“Minister Deri apologizes to Ofer Berkovitch if he was misunderstood,” the statement said.
Berkovitch’s team told the Ynet news site that security had been stepped up around their candidate in the wake of mounting threats.
“Minister Deri’s statement is grave and constitutes the crossing of a red line, adding to a host of incidents, and calls for incitement against Berkovitch,” said a campaign representative. “We are saddened that those who try to divide do so with statements that lead to violence.”
Also in response to Deri’s comments, Berkovitch implied possible electoral malfeasance, telling Army Radio that his team could take action in light of Deri’s conduct in the local elections.
“We heard about some of his strange attempts to disrupt the results and we are considering legal steps,” Berkovitch said.
The Ynet news site also reported Sunday that Berkovitch’s campaign has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to transfer Deri’s oversight powers in the Jerusalem elections due to his family’s close involvement in Lion’s campaign.
Lion enjoys the backing of both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and ultra-Orthodox faction Shas and part of United Torah Judaism, leading to charges of behind-the-scenes political wheeling and dealing on the national level to secure him the position.
Berkovitch’s faction says the prime minister can transfer Deri’s authority in the matter as interior minister to another minister in order to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Aner Hefetz, an attorney who represents Berkovitch, told Ynet that “Deri also serves as chairman of the Shas party, which clearly supports Lion for mayor. In the first round of voting, there were times when the polls were very crowded, and now with voting concentrated to a limited number of hours, there could be a great deal of pressure which could cause voters to leave the polls without voting.”
Berkovitch has led the vanguard of the secularist flank of the city with his Hitorerut party, and despite years on Jerusalem’s city council campaigned as an outsider unsullied by political horse-trading.
Jerusalemites will go to the polls on Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. for the second round of voting to determine their next mayor.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.