Op-ed: Municipal elections

The mayor is certain to win, but there’s a lot more to the vote in Jerusalem

Moshe Lion will be back, but with liberal and traditional Jerusalemites focused on war, ultra-Orthodox factions are expected to win more than half the city council for the first time

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Mayor Moshe Lion at his office in Jerusalem, May 9, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)
Mayor Moshe Lion at his office in Jerusalem, May 9, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

Jerusalem’s municipal elections in 2018 were turbulent and passionate, with two major candidates facing off in the battle for the capital’s future: Ofer Berkovitch and Moshe Lion, the latter supported by both Shas leader Aryeh Deri and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman. A runoff vote ended in Lion’s favor.

Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community was engaged in bitter infighting. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky split the Ashkenazi parties, the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah and the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael (which in national politics join forces to make up the United Torah Judaism party), and ordered the former to fight the latter mercilessly. Degel Hatorah won six seats on the 31-member city council; Agudat Yisrael won three and this year is seeking to mend fences.

There has always been something to fight for in Jerusalem, a city that has seen centuries of wars. But the current election campaign in the capital is noteworthy for its lack of headlines.

The post-October 7 IDF war against Hamas in Gaza has drawn attention and interest away from the municipal elections in Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular.

Large parts of the public don’t feel like dealing with divisive political elections and are saving their energy for bigger events to come after the war.

Mayor Lion, who is completing his first five-year term in the position, is a shoo-in for another term even though he is opposed, at least in principle, by Yosi Havilio, who used to be the city’s legal counsel and a sports reporter for the local paper Kol Ha’ir.

An Illustration of ballots ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections, at a warehouse in Jerusalem on February 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lion, a sweet-talker, has succeeded in building broad support thanks to his hard work, resourcefulness, excellent relationship with the Haredi community, and outstanding ability to connect to a variety of audiences.

Unlike his predecessors, Lion did not come to Jerusalem to use the city as a steppingstone into a national political career  — even though he sees himself as perfect for the role of finance minister. He’s never said a word about national and political issues regarding the city’s international standing.

By contrast, former prime minister Ehud Olmert used to run around the city when he was mayor surrounded by an army of bodyguards, making militant right-wing statements, especially in times of security tensions. Economy Minister Nir Barkat, who now has his sights set on the Likud leadership, also took pains to position himself with broader national concerns in mind. It’s hard to see how the city benefited from these moves.

Lion’s achievements and his contribution to Jerusalem will be held up to scrutiny by voters on Tuesday, but his ability to avoid the city’s numerous combustible issues is commendable. He has never made a public visit to Temple Mount and has never expressed an opinion on the number of Muslims who should be allowed there during Ramadan. He also doesn’t go to places of contention like scenes of terror attacks, so as not to cause an argument about his opinions, whatever they may be.

During major conflicts a couple of years ago between Jews and Arabs in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where houses were set on fire and residents were injured a mere 500 yards (a third of a mile) from his office, Lion tried to resolve the issue via quiet discussions with police commanders. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, by contrast, went and set up a temporary political office right in the middle of the conflict zone.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, on February 27, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

In 2018, Lion’s independent council slate won zero seats, but now, the man who presented himself at the time as “the man who takes care of everyone” is pretty popular. It’s not only the Haredim, for whom the kippa-wearing Lion is the ultimate mayor, having granted them their every request. He’s also popular among movements like Hitorerut (Awakening) in Jerusalem, that seek change.

“Moshe Lion is a Shasnik, and [late Shas spiritual leader] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef brought him” to Jerusalem, Shas-affiliated Deputy Mayor Chaim Cohen told The Times of Israel. “Lion was from Givatayim, and Rabbi Ovadia decided he would be our candidate and asked him to run, and he did.”

Cohen noted that “in the last elections, Lion didn’t win a single seat [from his list] for the city council. [Shas] has five seats. We were his support. The whole faction held him up and supported him…. He’s a Shas member through and through.”

An ultra-Orthodox majority

In Tuesday’s elections, Lion will once again run on an independent, non-party-affiliated ticket, following in the footsteps of legendary long-term mayor Teddy Kollek who always ran with an independent slate called One Jerusalem. Kollek’s goal was to have a majority in the council to rely upon so that he could carry out his big plans without interference.

Lion, who is no Kollek, has named his ticket One Jerusalem as well — but it has no chance of getting a majority on the council. Cohen insists that’s not a problem: “Lion’s entire list is technical. His list is Shas. Period.”

Safra Square, the Jerusalem municipality building on February 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The question of the council’s majority is critical. Jerusalem’s council has 31 members, 15 of whom are currently from the Haredi factions (Degel Hatorah, Shas, Agudat Yisrael, and the Jerusalem Faction). After the elections on Tuesday, they will very likely make up more than half the council for the first time ever.

Voter turnout ratings are expected to be especially low this time, but the Haredi community will go out and vote as they are told to by their spiritual leaders.

A Haredi majority on the council means that the community has control of the planning and construction, finance, and education committees, among others. This is democracy in action; but it may encourage a further exodus of the city’s secular residents, many of whom have felt out of place for a while.

An ultra-Orthodox man in the neighborhood of Mea She’arim, in Jerusalem, February 20, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Divided they fall

The liberal public in Jerusalem is represented by two factions: Hitorerut and The Jerusalem Union.

Hitorerut currently has seven seats in the council and is led by a vigorous and serious young man named Adir Schwartz under the slogan “Jerusalem chooses the victory generation.”

The Jerusalem Union is headed by Havilio, the aforementioned long-shot challenger, and its slogans are similar to those touted by the last year’s protest groups against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined by calls for equitable sharing of the military burden and an end to Haredi exemption from service. The faction is made up of Yesh Atid, Meretz, Labor, and other left-wing players.

Unfortunately for these two factions, some of their potential voters are fighting in  and around Khan Younis and Rafah, and it’s not certain that they will make their way to the mobile ballots set up for soldiers in Gaza.

At best, the two factions will win a total of eight seats. Lion succeeded in getting Havilio and half of Hitorerut to join his coalition during his current term, and the same will probably be true in the next one.

Election campaign posters of candidates for the Jerusalem municipal elections on buses, in Jerusalem, February 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The national connection

Meanwhile, this campaign has one interesting feature: national politicians have been crisscrossing the country endorsing candidates from their parties, while at the same time drumming up support for themselves.

The Haredi politicians are open about doing this, but Knesset members from Likud and Religious Zionism have been trying to hide it so that they don’t get accused of focusing on petty politics in wartime. This is another reason why the elections should have been postponed until after the war.

But at least one politician has been making no bones about his politicking — Ben Gvir. The Otzma Yehudit leader is endorsing a far-right faction in Jerusalem headed by Deputy Mayor Arieh King and was planning a procession last Friday through Mahane Yehuda Market, a nationalist stronghold, in support of King.

Ben Gvir and King’s strength on the city council will most definitely increase after the elections, in inverse proportion to Ben Gvir’s success in the war on terror and the decrease in individuals’ sense of security.

Finally, there is Arab candidate Sundos Alhoot, who was seen handing out leaflets in Malha Mall on Thursday calling on people to vote for her slate, called Kol Toshaveha (All Its Residents).

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tours with Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Arieh King ahead of the upcoming municipal elections, at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on February 23, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Since Arabs make up 40% of the city’s residents, Alhoot should in theory be able to take the mayor’s seat without even trying. But in Jerusalem the Arabs have not participated in elections since 1967, when the east and west parts of the city were unified, because they believe casting a vote means recognizing Israel’s control.

Related: A young Arab woman seeks to make history by being voted into Jerusalem city council

Alhoot, an impressive woman working in education, is blazing a trail but is destined to fail.

Though she is promising the Arabs in East Jerusalem that she will “advance equality in education, culture, infrastructure, playgrounds, public gardens, public institutions, and everything,” she will not make it onto the council.

Most Popular
read more: