The second round of Israel’s local elections concluded Tuesday night with some tectonic shifts in local politics.
It has long been assumed that mayors are almost impossible to dislodge. As an institution, the Israeli mayor is a kind of permanent political campaign, standing at kindergarten openings, holding court at gatherings of concerned citizens, fixing problems felt by voters close to home, negotiating power arrangements in municipal bodies that serve all concerned. Mayors are seemingly routinely felled in Israel by corruption investigations, but not by voters.
That changed this year in the first-round voting in 251 municipalities on October 30, and even more dramatically in the 54 second-round races on November 13. In Haifa, Bat Yam, Ashkelon, Ramat Gan, Rishon Lezion, Nahariya, Umm al-Fahm, Tiberias, Petah Tikva, Kiryat Shemona, Ra’anana and Ma’alot-Tarshiha, among others, veteran mayors were ousted by unexpectedly strong challengers, some of whom seemed to come from nowhere.
This was true in two of Israel’s four largest cities: Haifa and Rishon Lezion. Haifa’s race, decided on October 30, saw relatively unknown candidate Einat Kalisch Rotem oust 15-year incumbent Yona Yahav. In Rishon Lezion, Israel’s fourth-largest city, two-term incumbent Dov Tzur, who won in 2013 with a sweeping 71% of the vote, lost to Raz Kinstlich on Tuesday in a close 53-47 race.
Indeed, even the conventional wisdom that the longer a mayor is in place the harder it is to unseat him has fallen by the wayside, as Ma’alot-Tarshiha’s Shlomo Buhbut learned on Tuesday night after 42 years in office.
“I don’t think anyone will break that record,” he quipped when the results came in.
Each race has its own unique narrative. In Ma’alot-Tarshiha, Buhbut’s loss to Russian-speaker Arkady Pomerantz reflected a shift in power from old Mizrahi immigrants to the newer Russian-speaking population.
“I took in this wonderful wave of immigrants,” Buhbut said late Tuesday. “Then one of the immigrants said to me, ‘Shlomo Buhbut, I will replace you.’”
He both embraced and vilified the Russian-speaking vote that turned against him, insisting “I have nothing against these people; I took them in. But there were criminals [in the Pomerantz campaign]. It’s not easy standing up to [Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor] Liberman, who sent his people, and I’m sure spent lots of money” backing Pomerantz.
In Pomerantz’s defense, it is unlikely that any seedy chicanery decided the vote. Turnout was extraordinarily high in the town on Tuesday – 59% compared to the national average of 43% — suggesting strong voter engagement, and Pomerantz won with a huge majority, 64.5% to Buhbut’s 35.5%. The higher the turnout and the more lopsided the win, the harder it is to ascribe the final result to something other than the desire of voters.
Buhbut could perhaps be forgiven his surprise at the results. Other unexpectedly deposed mayors shared the feeling.
In Nahariya, 30-year mayor Jacky Sabag ended his term with the terse complaint: “After 30 years I have come to the conclusion that the residents of Nahariya are ungrateful.”
The high turnover was good news for diversity.
Only five women led cities, towns or regional councils in Israel going into the latest election cycle. After Tuesday, with second-round victories for Hagar Perry Yagur in Pardes Hana-Karkur (with 54% of the vote) and Ye’ela Michal Maklis in Yahud-Monson (56%), that figure has more than doubled to 13. While that’s just 5% of the total of over 250 mayors and council heads, they include some of Israel’s major urban centers, including Haifa, Netanya and Beit Shemesh.
In Umm al-Fahm, a city led for 30 years by representatives of the Islamic Movement, a reformist, independent school principal, Dr. Samir Mahamid, rode the wave of change to oust Khaled Aghbaria.
Another signal of the voters’ newfound eagerness for change could be seen in the inadequacy of national parties’ efforts on the local scene.
One example among many was supplied Tuesday in Bat Yam, where Tzvika Brot, a Likud member, defeated incumbent Yossi Becher.
Despite Brot’s belonging to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party, Netanyahu backed his opponent Becher in the race. After Brot’s win the mayor-elect struck a magnanimous tone, saying late Tuesday, “The prime minister called and congratulated me on the victory. We agreed to meet in the coming days and to work together on all the issues that are important to Bat Yam. We talked about this great achievement for the Likud movement: for the first time in 25 years, Likud won the mayorship and became the largest party on the city council.”
Brot’s magnanimity toward Netanyahu may reflect his future aspirations, because it doesn’t reflect the national Likud party’s efforts on his behalf. From Bat Yam to Yeruham to Jerusalem, evidence emerged in this race of a significant gap between the national Likud party and its local branches.
Voters seemed capable – indeed, eager – to compartmentalize their local and national politics.