In Lion-Berkovitch runoff, rogue Hasidic voters could hold key to the capital
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AnalysisRevenge of the rabbis?

In Lion-Berkovitch runoff, rogue Hasidic voters could hold key to the capital

Backed by most ultra-Orthodox, Moshe Lion remains front-runner for Jerusalem mayor on November 13 unless some rabbis decide to seek to spite their rivals in a long-shot maneuver

Marissa Newman

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion arrives at his campaign headquarters , on October 30, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion arrives at his campaign headquarters , on October 30, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

It is a widely held piece of Jerusalem political lore that a last-minute backdoor “deal” between Mayor Nir Barkat and major Hasidic sects in the capital narrowly swung the vote in his favor in 2013 (51 percent) over then-rival Moshe Lion (45%).

To this day, both sides officially deny any such agreement was reached. But in the run-up to the 2013 vote, the powerful religious leader of the Gur sect declined to endorse Lion and gave his followers the freedom of vote, breaking with the broader ultra-Orthodox community and giving a tailwind to Barkat. The Belz sect followed suit, and when Barkat won another five-year term, analysts pointed to the Hasidic vote as a key factor.

On Tuesday, Lion coasted to a runoff in the Jerusalem mayoral election with 33%, or some 80,000 votes. On November 13, he will face off with another Barkat-like rival, Hitorerut chairman Ofer Berkovitch, who received 29% in the first round, or some 70,000 votes.

Currently, Lion appears far better positioned to win: His ultra-Orthodox supporters have consistently high turnout rates and many of the supporters of defeated candidate Ze’ev Elkin, who like him is Orthodox and has political roots in the Likud party, are expected to back him in the second round.

But now, as in 2013, the Hasidic vote — as well as that of other hardliners — could prove decisive.

Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem Mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch arrives at his campaign headquarters as he leads the early counting in the municipal elections for Jerusalem, on October 30, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Lion and Berkovitch will be pillaging the voters of candidates Elkin and Yossi Deitch, both of whom failed to advance to the second round of voting (the runoff between the top two candidates is being held after no single candidate won 40% of the vote). Elkin, the Jerusalem affairs minister backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came in third with some 20%, followed by the ultra-Orthodox Deitch, with 17% (results not final).

Deitch had been backed by the largely Hasidic Agudat Yisrael faction, which declined to join forces with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Degel HaTorah factions in supporting Lion, much like 2013.

Between Elkin and Deitch, some 88,000 Jerusalem voters are now up for grabs, assuming turnout rates are consistent in two weeks’ time. While Israelis enjoyed a day off for the first time on Tuesday to vote in the local elections — giving turnout rates a slight but not dramatic boost — the second round on November 13 will be a regular workday (sorry, folks).

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Zeev Elkin and his son pray at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem Old City, on the morning of the municipal elections on October 30, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

A breakdown of the seats

A look at the distribution of the city’s 31 council seats in Tuesday’s election (residents vote separately for mayor and council list) offers some insight into the breakdown of Jerusalem’s disparate political populations.

Notably, Lion’s support appears to rely heavily — almost exclusively — on the ultra-Orthodox, with some 40,000 Degel HaTorah and 33,000 Shas voters electing their respective council members into office (some five-six seats apiece), while Lion’s Our Jerusalem party failed to clear the threshold for council seats, with some 2% of  the vote (results not final). If elected mayor, he will need special permission from the Interior Ministry to head the council without any representatives from his list on it, according to Hebrew reports.

Lion had received some 79,000 votes for mayor on Tuesday night after a somewhat lackluster campaign that saw him largely dependent on Haredi rabbinical endorsements (at a recent town hall meeting in Jerusalem, asked what surprised him about the campaign, Lion remarked that he thought it would be easier).

Also Tuesday, Agudat Yisrael’s United Torah Judaism party earned some 25,000 council votes, or three seats. Berkovitch’s Hitorerut snatched up the most support, a predicted six seats, with 43,000 votes.

An Israeli man hangs campaign posters for local elections in the center of Jerusalem on October 30, 2018 (THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Meanwhile, Elkin’s Jerusalem Will Succeed party received just 11,000 votes, signaling that over three-quarters of the 47,000 residents who voted for the Likud minister had supported other council lists.

Elkin’s mystery voters will likely be split in the next round between Lion and Berkovitch, with some expected to perceive the former as a Likud stalwart (he formerly served as Netanyahu’s bureau chief) and others likely to reject him on account of his longstanding alliance with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Much of the outcome in the next race will depend upon the whims of these voters, about whom little is known.

But even assuming generously that Lion will take three-quarters of Elkin’s share — or some 35,000 voters — and retain his 80,000 Haredi supporters come mid-November, he is not necessarily guaranteed a victory, in the long-shot event Berkovitch scores the Hasidic and hardline Haredi vote and raises turnout rates among the secular.

This would include Berkovitch’s 70,000 supporters; the 25,000 Agudath Yisrael voters (Deitch received 41,000 votes, with the remaining 16,000 from other unidentified quarters); 8,000 hardline Jerusalem Faction Bnei Torah voters, who had endorsed Elkin; along with the several thousand former Elkin and Deitch voters, which would put the two neck and neck.

Haredi wars vs. Shabbat

Whether this would happen, however, depends on whether heated internal Haredi divisions triumph over religious considerations.

The 2018 local elections were particularly acrimonious among the different streams of ultra-Orthodox Jews countrywide — a trend that played out most prominently in the central city of Elad, where the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah faction ran its own candidate against the incumbent, Agudat Yisrael’s Yisrael Porush, stoking fury.

Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Rabbi Yitzhak Pindrus. May 30 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice eventually disqualified the Degel HaTorah candidate, Yitzhak Pindrus, on account of his only partial relocation from Jerusalem to Elad to run for mayor. But the mudslinging lingered, and tensions back in Jerusalem were compounded when the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Degel HaTorah factions sided with Lion and dismissed Agudat Yisrael’s Deitch. And when Deitch didn’t drop out the race, in a move seen as diverting support from Lion, tempers flared even more.

Meanwhile, the fervently anti-draft Jerusalem Faction faces a dilemma: It will be hard pressed to support a candidate seen as in cahoots with Liberman in November, as the government drafts its Haredi enlistment legislation. A recent Yedioth Ahronoth report suggested Lion’s candidacy was part of a broader political deal on the draft law. As a result, the 8,000 voters could find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Berkovitch to spite Lion and the rest of the ultra-Orthodox — or they may not vote at all.

In the coming weeks, whether there is internal Haredi rapprochement will likely determine with whom Agudat Yisrael sides in the capital. As the 2013 race has shown, the Hasidic rabbinical leaders have long been critical of Lion and reluctant to support him, even if the outcome is a secular mayor.

But they will be weighing the costs against a candidate whom ultra-Orthodox critics have repeatedly alleged will seek to change the status quo in the capital, particularly on matters of Shabbat.

Berkovitch, for his part, has openly pledged not to capitulate to ultra-Orthodox pressure.

But if they receive reassurances on the matter from Berkovitch, the Hasidic kingmakers who vowed, at the start of the election season, to shutter the Mahane Yehuda market’s nightlife could find themselves in a position of delicious irony: quietly, secretly backing the upstart candidate whose market parties a decade ago got his Hitorerut political movement off the ground.

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