Berkovitch: The results don't look good

Interior minister says Lion is Jerusalem mayor, though soldiers’ votes uncounted

Ultra-Orthodox favorite declares victory after securing 6,000-vote lead over Ofer Berkovitch; 8,500 outstanding votes will only be tallied Wednesday

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Supporters of Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion react as the preliminary results of the mayoral race are announced on November 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Supporters of Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion react as the preliminary results of the mayoral race are announced on November 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri declared Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion the victor in Tuesday’s runoff overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, as the local ballot count ended with the ultra-Orthodox-backed candidate ahead of his rival, Ofer Berkovitch, by over 6,000 votes.

Lion claimed victory about two hours later.

Berkovitch had yet to concede the race, however, and the 8,500 votes by IDF soldiers, prisoners, and those cast in hospitals will only be counted on Wednesday, according to Army Radio. (Some 5,500 of those ballots were submitted by troops.) But Lion’s three-percentage point lead  (51% vs. 48%) was deemed sufficient by the interior minister and the candidate to confidently call the contest in his favor at 1 a.m.

Deri — a longtime supporter and friend of Lion — posted a video on Twitter of his phone call congratulating the Jerusalem council member on his ostensible win. “I congratulated my friend, Moshe Lion, the elected mayor of the Jerusalem municipality,” he said.

Lion declared victory around 2:15 a.m. “Jerusalem tonight chose unity, the sense of togetherness, the good,” Lion told a packed hall of supporters, many of whom were enthusiastically chanting “Aryeh Deri.”

“I intend to be the mayor of all of Jerusalem’s residents, whomever they may be. Those that voted for me, and those that didn’t,” said Lion.

Lion enjoys the backing of both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and ultra-Orthodox faction Shas — Deri’s party — and part of United Torah Judaism, leading to charges of backroom dealing on the national level to secure him the position. He was defeated by incumbent Nir Barkat in the 2013 election. Berkovitch, meanwhile, has led the vanguard of the secularist flank of the city with his Hitorerut party.

Supporters of Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch react as the preliminary results of the mayoral race are announced, on November 13, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

The nail-biting tallying since the polls closed at 10 p.m. saw some preemptively cheering Berkovitch as the capital’s next mayor.

At midnight the 35-year-old secular activist-turned city council member found himself way ahead of Lion, widening his lead by as much as 10,000 votes with 50 percent of the ballots counted.

But Berkovitch’s advantage was gradually whittled down, with Lion gliding ahead by 6,000 votes as the tally topped the 90 percent mark. He then held 51% to Berkovitch’s 48%, according to initial results.

At 1.40 a.m., Berkovitch told his supporters that “the results don’t look good,” but did not concede. “Jerusalem is the winner,” he said.

He later said his party’s legal team was evaluating various “irregularities” at the polling stations.

“We’ll work on it tonight and tomorrow morning,” he said, according to Hebrew reports, pointing to an unnamed “force that faced us using violent methods and some means that were borderline illegal” as the culprits.

“We won’t give up on victory in this round as well,” he said.

Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion arrives at his campaign headquarters after the first round of voting in mayoral elections , on October 30, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The preliminary results, posted by the municipality, must still be confirmed by the Interior Ministry. Should Lion be confirmed mayor, he will need special permission from the ministry to run the city council, after his party failed to garner a single seat on the 31-member panel in the first round of voting on October 30. Berkovitch’s Hitorerut party won 7 seats on the city council.

Polls closed on Tuesday night at 10 p.m with turnout rates in the capital reported at 31.5 percent. According to the Interior Ministry, 200,000 Jerusalem residents, out of  638,000, had exercised their right to pick their next mayor.

Jerusalem Mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovich and his wife Dina cast their ballots at a voting station for the Jerusalem municipal elections on November 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hasidic religious leaders in Jerusalem on Monday ordered their followers to refrain from voting in the runoff, splitting the ultra-Orthodox vote in a maneuver seen as buoying candidate Berkovitch and placing him neck-and-neck with the front-runner in the first election, Lion.

In the first round of voting Lion received 33% of the vote, followed by Berkovitch with 29%. East Jerusalem residents, some one-third of the city’s population, boycott the municipal elections.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man casts his ballot at a voting station during the municipal elections in Jerusalem, on November 13, 2018, in Jerusalem.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The runoff between the two contenders is being held after none of the five candidates in the first round — Lion, Berkovitch, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch, and Avi Salman — successfully won 40% of the vote. The turnout in the first round stood at 39%.

Despite Lion’s broad Haredi support, brewing animosity between the Lithuanian non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah and largely Hasidic Agudat Yisrael prompted the latter’s rabbinical council to decide, a day before the vote, that it would stay home on election day and not back Lion, in what some saw as tacit support for Berkovitch’s candidacy.

In the final hours before the vote ended, many Hasidim surged to the ballots, according to Hebrew reports. Among them was United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, a confidant of the leader of the Gur dynasty and Israel’s deputy health minister.

Agudath Yisrael broke ranks with the other ultra-Orthodox groups in the first round of the vote, tapping its own candidate — Yossi Deitch — rather than supporting Lion. The Hasidic sects were also rumored to be a decisive factor in incumbent Nir Barkat’s narrow victory over Lion in 2013.

A man holds voting notes of Jerusalem mayoral candidates Ofer Berkovich and Moshe Lion, during preparations for the upcoming second round of the Jerusalem municipal elections, at a warehouse in Jerusalem on November 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The tightened race also came after Lion received several high-profile endorsements. He was backed by incumbent Barkat, the local chapters of the Likud and Jewish Home parties, and several Likud ministers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not endorsed either Lion, the former director-general of his bureau, or Berkovitch.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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