War-weary Israelis stay away from polls

Jerusalem’s Moshe Lion, Tel Aviv’s Ron Huldai cruise to victory in mayoral races

As election results roll in, Holon’s veteran mayor loses seat after 30 years while Beit Shemesh and Haifa will go to run-off races after no winners emerge

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion speaks to the media after winning a second term in office, Jerusalem, early on February 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion speaks to the media after winning a second term in office, Jerusalem, early on February 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Results from the municipal elections trickled in Wednesday morning, with a number of incumbent mayors cruising to reelection, others heading toward defeat and a few finding themselves in highly competitive races.

The results were not final as they do not include “double-envelope” ballots cast by residents who were not able to vote at their assigned polling stations, such as soldiers and reservists, a larger-than-usual number as Israel voted amid the war in Gaza.

In Jerusalem, the capital and most populous city, Mayor Moshe Lion romped to victory, picking up 81.5% of the vote to secular challenger Yossi Havilio’s 18.5%, with 100% of ballots counted.

In his victory speech, Lion said that under other circumstances, his win would have been cause for celebration, but in light of the war in Gaza, the victory was a somber one.

“I admit that this is difficult for me, and in these moments, I’m thinking, first of all, of all the hostages we pray to return as soon as possible to the State of Israel. I’m thinking of the IDF soldiers and security forces who are fighting for us in these moments,” he said.

With most of the votes counted in Tel Aviv, incumbent Mayor Ron Huldai was poised to defeat former Yesh Atid minister Orna Barbivai, securing a sixth consecutive term as head of the coastal city.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai casts his ballot at a voting station on the morning of the Municipal Elections, in Tel Aviv, on February 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

While there were no official results yet, Huldai appeared to win 51% of the vote to Barbivai’s 37%, while Yuval Zellner took 14%, according to Channel 12 news. Barbivai conceded defeat early Wednesday, congratulating Huldai and thanking her supporters.

Tel Aviv Mayoral candidate Orna Barbivai casts her ballot at a voting station on the morning of the Municipal Elections, in Tel Aviv, on February 27, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Voter turnout nationwide was low Tuesday, with only 49.5 percent of eligible voters having cast ballots when polls closed at 10 p.m., following months of delays caused by the ongoing war in Gaza.

Local elections in cities and regional councils adjacent to Gaza and along the border with Lebanon in the north, where residents have been evacuated under fire, have been postponed until November

It was not clear how much the municipal vote would reflect voters’ attitudes to the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Successive opinion polls since Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel have shown Netanyahu and his hardline allies losing significant public support, and National Union party chief Benny Gantz well placed to form a new government were general elections to be held today. But unlike Netanyahu’s Likud, Gantz’s party does not have a powerful and experienced local election machine.

Furthermore, turnout in local polls is always lower than in national elections, and on Tuesday was proving even lower than usual, a factor seen likely to boost the showing of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies in many areas, including Jerusalem, since the ultra-Orthodox community reliably turns out in high numbers.

In addition, it appeared that many war-weary Israelis simply took the day off.

Malls, restaurants and parks were packed and credit card companies reported that between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., Israelis spent more than NIS 620 million, a 15% rise compared to the last election day in November 2022.

People shopping at the Azrieli mall in Tel Aviv, during the Municipal Elections, February 27, 2024. Photo by (Flash90)

In Haifa, Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem was sent packing after only picking up 4.5% of the vote in a crowded field. No clear winner emerged, however, and Haifa is one of several municipalities that will hold a second round of voting after no one managed to secure 40% of ballots.

The run-off in the northern city, which is Israel’s third most populous, will see former longtime mayor Yona Yahav, 79  — who lost to Kalisch-Rotem in 2018 — run against David Etzioni.

Another notable run-off race will take place in Beit Shemesh after incumbent Mayor Aliza Bloch edged out her predecessor Moshe Abutbul for second place. With all ballots counted, Bloch had 32.4% of the vote to Abutbul’s 31.9%.

She’s now slated to face off against Shmuel Greenberg, who received 35.7% of votes.

Campaign volunteers at the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party’s municipal campaign headquarters in Beit Shemesh, February 27, 2024. (Sam Sokol/times of Israel)

Rehovot will also hold a run-off between Matan Dil and Zohar Blum, with Mayor Rahamim Malul trailing behind them in third place.

Run-off elections will also be held in Efrat and Ariel after no candidate secured 40% of the vote in either of the West Bank settlement cities.

In Netanya, where 98.5% of ballots had been counted by 5 a.m., Mayor Miriam Feirberg managed to avoid a run-off, fending off a close challenge from Avi Slama, with 43.4% of votes to his 40%.

Not all incumbents were as successful as Feirberg, however. In the Etzion bloc, regional council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman — who heads the Yesha Council settlement umbrella group — lost his reelection bid to Yaron Rosenthal.

Online election results published by the Interior Ministry showed that Ne’eman received 44.2% of the total vote while Rosenthal picked up 55.8%.

In the central city of Holon, veteran Mayor Moti Sasson was unseated by Shai Kenan after some 30 years. With 98.9% of the votes counted, Kenan received 43.3% of the ballots, cruising to an easy victory. In second place, Israel Morris Moran won 27.2% of the vote, and Sasson trailed behind with just 17.8%.

“After 30 years, I was surprised,” Sasson told the Ynet news site of his loss.

Moti Sasson, mayor of Holon, seen at the Holon Municipality offices on June 26, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

In Herzliya, incumbent Mayor Moshe Fadlon narrowly missed securing a third term, winning 49.7% of the vote compared to challenger Yariv Fisher who got 50.3%.

In the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Elad, Mayor Israel Porush lost his seat to Yehuda Botbol of Shas, who received 55.9% votes to Porush’s  44.1%. Porush is a member of Agudat Israel, an Ashkenazi Hasidic faction, while Botbol is a member of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.

The two parties also squared off in Bnei Brak, where Health Minister Uriel Buso of Shas lost to former mayor Hanoch Zeibert of Agudat Israel.

Yossi Kakun celebrates his apparent victory in the Safed municipal elections, February 28, 2024 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Other incumbents who lost their seats overnight included Safed Mayor Shuki Ohana and Arad Mayor Nissan Ben Hamo.

Although only 21% of the votes had been counted in Beersheba by 9 a.m., incumbent Mayor Ruvik Danilovich scored an easy victory as the southern city’s only mayoral candidate.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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