Meet the contenders seeking to be mayors of Israel’s top cities
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Local elections 2018

Meet the contenders seeking to be mayors of Israel’s top cities

On October 30, residents across the country will vote for their local officials. Here’s a look at how the race is playing out in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa (plus some tidbits)

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Man voting in the town of Beit Shemesh. (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Man voting in the town of Beit Shemesh. (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

On October 30, some 6.6 million Israeli citizens and residents over the age of 17 will be eligible to cast their votes in the local elections, appointing officials to some 251 city, town, and regional councils nationwide, according to Interior Ministry figures.

They will cast two ballots: one for mayor, and another for the party list they wish to represent them on their hometown council. If no single mayoral candidate receives over 40 percent of the vote on October 30, a second round of voting — pitting the two contenders who garnered the largest shares against each other — will be scheduled for November 13.

For the first time, under a new Knesset law, Israelis will be given the day off to vote for their local officials, a change that is geared to jolt voters out of their time-tested indifference toward municipal polls and hike up the traditionally low turnout rates. Those rates stood at a national average of 51.9% in the previous 2013 elections, and just 28.7% in Tel Aviv-Jaffa; 36.1% in Jerusalem, where Arab residents of East Jerusalem boycott the vote; and 32.7% in Haifa.

City and regional council elections are also being held, for the first time in Israel’s history, on the same day. Also marking a historic first, four Druze councils will be holding elections in the Golan Heights for the first time since Israel won control of the area in 1967.

Workers count IDF soldiers’ votes for the nationwide local elections in the Election Committee’s Control Room in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan on October 23, 2013.(Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

According to the Interior Ministry, in 18 local councils and 11 regional councils, the candidate for leader is running unopposed.

The youngest candidate in the local race is 26 years old — Ayoub Abu Kaf for the Negev’s al-Kasom regional council — while the oldest are 82 (Efraim Feinblum, running for Beersheba mayor; and Tzvi Gov Ari, running for Yavne mayor).

Male candidates continue to outnumber women 10 to 1 in seeking leadership positions: Some 665 men are vying to be mayor, compared to some 58 women. Similarly, 119 men and 14 women are running to be heads of regional councils.

Ultra-Orthodox supporters of Jerusalem Faction seen throwing campaign fliers in the air on the eve of the municipal elections in the city of Bnei Brak on October 23, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

But overall, 750 more female candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for other council seats than in 2013, the Interior Ministry said.

Of the head-spinning 3,400 political party lists in the running across the country, most are not affiliated with Israel’s governing political parties, a byproduct of reforms adopted in the 1970s that separated the local and national elections, according to Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College.

Some 665 men are vying to be mayor, compared to some 58 women

“This is a problem, because if it’s not the big ideology that can guide me who to vote for, then it’s really confusing,” said Kenig. “The average citizen doesn’t really know what the differences are between all these candidates, and all these local lists with strange names, like ‘Our Haifa,’ ‘Haifa Forever,’ ‘Together in Haifa.’”

Local lists can often be very similar, since most people want the same things in their city: Affordable housing, better transportation, good schools, and green spaces, he added. And mayoral candidates gradually discovered a partisan affiliation with one of Israel’s governing parties can be a liability rather than an asset, he said.

Dr. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute. (Courtesy of IDI)

The outcome: In the 2018 elections, there are some 20 party lists, many of them independent, running in Israel’s three major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Some standouts are successfully branded, but many remain largely indistinguishable from one another, and their detailed but similar policy platforms engender a distinct sense of deja vu.

Many people believe that national politics and ideology like the peace process have no place in local government, but Kenig disagreed. The Israel Democracy Institute tries to encourage the big political parties to be more involved on a local level.

“It would improve their responsiveness, because they would be staying in touch with the average citizen better,” he said. It would also help voters distinguish between the candidates.

“Sometimes, the only way to differentiate between the candidates is by who is the least corrupt,” said Kenig. “And that can be very shallow.”

Below is a look at how the races are playing out in Israel’s three major cities. As of this writing, the Interior Ministry has yet to publicize the official, approved lists of mayoral candidates and parties, despite an October 10 deadline and the rapidly approaching vote. The figures below are based on the self-declarations of the candidates and parties.

Jerusalem

Six candidates are running for mayor of the capital, and some 19 party lists are registered to contend for the city’s 31 council seats.

The front-runners in the mayoral race are Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, and Jerusalem council members Moshe Lion and Ofer Berkovitch. (Read The Times of Israel’s interviews with Elkin, Berkovitch, and Lion.)

All three have vowed to woo new businesses to the city, step up construction, improve the city’s cleanliness, and prevent young Jerusalemites from relocating due to prohibitive housing costs.

Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, speaks at the Jerusalem Center for Public and State Issues, on September 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Elkin has also played up his political experience and connections, which he argues will benefit the city and its government-funded municipal budget. But the minister has failed to convince the local chapter of Likud to support him (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incumbent Nir Barkat, who left his office to join Likud, have endorsed Elkin).

As the youngest candidate in the race at 35, and one of two secular ones, Berkovitch has championed pluralism, and pledged he won’t be cowed by ultra-Orthodox political pressure.

Ofer Berkovitch, Jerusalem mayoral candidate and head of Hitorerut (Awakening) movement is seen at the opening of his election campaign in Jerusalem on September 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lion, meanwhile, has received the backing of much of the ultra-Orthodox community, but an undaunted Haredi rival in the race, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch of the Hasidic-dominated Agudat Yisrael faction, threatens to snatch up at least some of the ultra-Orthodox vote.

Deitch was originally predicted to be the ultra-Orthodox candidate with wide backing from the community (representing some 37% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem), but Haredi religious leaders affiliated with the Shas and Degel HaTorah factions ultimately endorsed Lion for the job. Though he’d been widely expected to drop out of the race following the announcement, Deitch has pressed on with his candidacy, largely to Lion’s detriment.

Candidate for the Jerusalem mayoral race Moshe Lion visits the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A second maverick ultra-Orthodox mayoral candidate is Jerusalem council member Haim Epstein, representing the vociferously anti-military conscription Jerusalem Faction, formerly led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who died earlier this year. In the 2013 mayoral race, Epstein culled some 3% of the vote.

Rounding off the candidates is relative unknown Avi Salman.

With the high number of candidates, recent (yet notoriously fickle) polls have indicated none of the contenders will win 40% of the vote in the first round, likely sending Jerusalem to a second square-off in mid-November between the top two candidates.

Jerusalem deputy mayor and mayoral candidate Yossi Deitch, July 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

All of the mayoral candidates are also heads of independent party lists: Berkovitch of the Hitorerut party, which holds four seats on the current council; Elkin of the Yerushalayim Tatzliah (“Jerusalem Will Succeed”) faction — formerly run by Barkat — in a joint list with the Yerushalmim faction (formerly run by Kulanu MK and erstwhile challenger Rachel Azaria); and Lion of Yerushalayim Shelanu (“Our Jerusalem”).

The other parties include Deitch’s Agudath Yisrael, now distinct from the Degel HaTorah list (in the past, both have run together for the council under the United Torah Judaism banner). Deitch has also signed a deal with the Orthodox right-wing United faction, led by council member Aryeh King, to act as a political bloc. There is also a party list for Jewish Home, Likud, Meretz, and Shas; a Palestinian list led by Ramadan Dabash, Jerusalem for Jerusalemites, which aims to improve life in East Jerusalem; and several others.

The Meurav Yerushalmi party, launched by 26-year-old Evyatar Elbaz — founder of the Alon search and rescue organization — is also seeking seats on the council. On his Facebook page, Elbaz has touted endorsements from the controversial anti-assimilation group Lehava’s director Bentzi Gopstein, and convicted sex offender rabbi Eliezer Berland.

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Posted by ‎אביתר אלבאז – Evyatar Elbaz‎ on Sunday, 14 October 2018

Tel Aviv

Longtime Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, 74, is looking to extend his mandate, his popularity mostly unflagging even 20 years into the job.

But Huldai, who heads the TA 1 list, also faces an increasingly formidable challenge by his younger deputy, Asaf Zamir, 38, of the Rov HaIr faction.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in Tel Aviv, October 31, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Recent surveys have shown Zamir still trailing his boss by some 6-10 percentage points, with nearly one-third of voters still undecided.

Also running for mayor is comedian Assaf Harel, 46, of the Anachnu HaIr party, and Segev candidate Natan Elnatan, though both have fared poorly in opinion polls.

Asaf Zamir, running for mayor in Tel Aviv in the upcoming municipality elections, speaks to young voters at his campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 14, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In recent appearances, Zamir has expressed support for banning full-time Airbnb apartments in the city plagued by a housing shortage, and has called for a major budgetary boost to improve the quality of life in south Tel Aviv, underlining that the thousands of asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who live in the neighborhoods are “here to stay.”

During the course of his campaign, Zamir’s office was hit by a vandalism attack, with the headquarters daubed with red-painted swastikas.

While politicians in conservative Jerusalem fret over religion and state issues and clamor for rabbinic approval, the spread of some 20 Tel Aviv party lists is true to its liberal colors: There are parties for vegans (“Vegan Tel Aviv”), environmentalists (“Ir Yeruka” and “Chai: Secular Greens”), and pensioners (“Power to the Pensioners); an all-female list (“Halo”); and the anti-racism Yafa list.

Swastikas discovered daubed on campaign office of Tel Aviv mayoral candidate Asaf Zamir on October 14, 2018. (Rov Hair campaign, courtesy)

There is also a party for immigrants (“Olim Beyachad”), a party opposing the presence of African asylum-seekers in south Tel Aviv (“Drom Hair”), two religious parties (“Believers” and “Segev”), and several national parties (Meretz, Likud, Yesh Atid), along with other parties currently on the 31-seat council (Huldai’s TA1, Zamir’s Rov HaIr, Ir LeKulanu), plus several others.

Haifa

The northern coastal city encountered some 11th-hour political drama, after the District Court on Thursday morning upheld the disqualification of Einat Kalisch Rotem — one of two candidates who posed a realistic challenge to the long-serving mayor of the northern coastal city, Yona Yahav.

Kalisch Rotem had been blocked from running by the Interior Ministry last week on a technicality after her Labor party attorney submitted two candidates, including Kalisch Rotem of the Chaim B’Haifa faction, to the race, in violation of the election procedures.

Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem, a candidate for Haifa mayor. (YouTube screenshot)

Following the District Court decision, and with the clock ticking before the election, she has vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court for a final ruling.

Yahav, 74, a former Knesset member, has been mayor of Haifa since 2003. He has combined forces with the local Yesh Atid branch during this election for his Haifa Youth electoral list.

He is facing off against David Etzioni, a lawyer and former finance minister adviser; Mendy Saltzman, the director-general of the Haifa Port and head of the Haifa Awakens party; Yisrael Savyon, the second Labor candidate and former director of the Haifa Municipality; and Avihu Hahn of the Haifa Green party.

Recent polls have placed Yahav, Kalisch Rotem, and Etzioni neck-and-neck, with the remaining candidates polling in the single digits.

Haifa mayor Yona Yahav seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem as he arrives for a court hearing about the closure of the ammonia tank in Haifa, April 4, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah faction and local branch of the liberal Meretz party have endorsed Kalisch Rotem for the job. At the head of the left-wing local Meretz party list is Rabbi Dov Haiyun, the Conservative rabbi whose predawn police questioning this summer over performing a wedding outside the state-run Chief Rabbinate sparked an international outcry.

Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun seen arriving at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018. Haiyun had been detained by police early that morning. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Like in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a plethora of parties are running for the city council, many of them largely indistinguishable from one another. Unlike the other cities, Haifa has a broader showing of the national parties, with candidates for Likud, Jewish Home, Hadash, Balad, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu, Degel HaTorah, Shas, and Agudat Yisrael.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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