It’s been a long time since anyone put up a significant fight to unseat veteran Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai.
But on Tuesday, 20-years after first election, the popular municipal head faces what may be his closest battle yet with his deputy of a decade, Assaf Zamir, running against him in a race that unexpectedly tightened in the run up to election day.
Voters across the city were largely split, with a strong majority likely to back either Huldai or Zamir, while comedian Asaf Harel and Shas deputy mayor Natan Elnatan both poll at 5-7 percent each.
Founder and chairman of the Tel Aviv party Ha’Ir, Zamir has risen from near obscurity in recent months since he announced his unlikely mayoral bid.
In July, Zamir was in third place in the mayoral race behind MK Stav Shaffir, according to a poll from Walla News, projected to capture just 11% of the vote. After Shaffir dropped out of the race, Zamir steadily climbed to a credible threat to Huldai’s otherwise clear path to victory. Some polls in the lead-up to the vote had him less than 10 percent behind the seasoned Huldai.
Some voters, however, said that while they may have been inclined to support other candidates, Zamir’s recent popularity has pushed them back to Huldai.
“I’m voting for [current Tel Aviv mayor Ron] Huldai, because I’m scared [candidate Asaf] Zamir will win,” said Bar Shoshani, a 33-year-old resident of south Tel Aviv neighborhood in Shapira.
“I really don’t want Zamir to win. I don’t like either one, but at least I know Huldai is in his last term. Zamir is too close to the crony capitalism; he’s just at the beginning of his career, and he will probably be elected again and again,” he said.
Zamir has been accused of “crony capitalism” due to his marriage to actress Maya Wertheimer, and his connection to her grandfather, Stef Wertheimer, a billionaire who founded tool fabrication companies and a number of industrial parks, and is personally bankrolling part of the mayoral campaign.
Shoshani said that despite his vote for Huldai as mayor, he planned to vote for Harel’s party, ‘We are the City,’ for the city council. “It’s a really interesting list,” Shoshani said.
He also appreciated the fact that Harel’s list includes a refugee from Congo, Maria Joze, who is 11th on the list.
Huldai, 74, has won the past four mayoral campaigns by a large margin, receiving between 51% and 62% of the votes. Under Israeli law, one mayoral candidate must receive at least 40% of the vote, otherwise a runoff is held with the two candidates who receive the highest percentage of the votes.
The biggest challenge to Huldai’s mayoral position came in 2008, when MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) ran on a platform focused on social and environmental issues, and managed to capture 34% of the votes. Huldai took 51% of the votes.
Dahlia Cooper, 74, a resident of north Tel Aviv, said she would be voting for Huldai for the fourth time.
“I voted for Huldai. He did a lot for this city. The city is beautiful now, it used to not be like this. It is a real metropolis. A lot of young people want to live here. This is a fun place to live,” she said, adding that she liked the mayor because “he is a good person. He has good values and he is not corrupt.”
Nili, 76, agreed. “I am voting for Huldai. He is a good mayor and has done a lot for the city,” she said.
Huldai was born in 1944 on Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel, which gave the family its name. He had a long career in the army and was principal of the prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium high school in Tel Aviv for six years, before becoming mayor in 1998.
As mayor, he has tackled major infrastructure projects such as a total renovation of the beachside promenade and attracted high-tech companies to the city. However, many residents are dismayed by the skyrocketing cost of living and impossible real estate prices.
But while Huldai, a Labor party stalwart, holds strong support with the minority of older Tel Aviv residents, younger voters have not fully flocked to Zamir, with about half still backing the septuagenarian.
Michal, a 35-year old pregnant mother, pushing a stroller to vote at a polling station on Nordau Street in the north of city, said she had voted for Huldai because under him, “the city works like clockwork.”
Despite high housing prices, Michal said that Huldai was “doing a good job” on issues of education, culture, and the cleanliness of the city.
On many of the issues, Zamir and Huldai share the same ideology. Both want to lower housing prices, improve public transportation, and make Israel’s most expensive city a bit more livable.
Zamir has promised to build upward, adding high-rise apartments to busy thoroughfares that can absorb taller buildings. He also wants to expand the urban center of Tel Aviv by renovating more far-flung neighborhoods to allow people to be able to live farther from the geographic center of Tel Aviv while still feeling part of the city.
Ofra, 84, said she voted for Zamir because Huldai has brought no “forward momentum” to the city.
For Yuval, 31, Zamir’s focus on infrastructure was a key pull.
“The two most important issues for me in the city are parking and bike lanes,” Yuval said, pointing to Zamir’s campaign for integrating bike lanes and public transportation with the larger Gush Dan area, reducing the need for cars, especially those driven by commuters from outside the city.
Huldai, however, said he wasn’t worried by Zamir’s recent swell of support.
“I have served the people of Tel Aviv for two decades,” he told press after voting Tuesday, “and I look forward to continuing to do so.”
Polls close at 10 p.m across the country with results expected throughout the night.