The spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Degel HaTorah political factions on Wednesday night threw their support behind the Jerusalem mayoral candidacy of Moshe Lion, potentially dividing the Haredi vote in the capital and all but ending the possibility the city would elect an ultra-Orthodox mayor.
Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Shalom Cohen endorsed Lion, a Jerusalem councilman, a significantly boost for a candidate who has been lagging badly in recent opinion polls. Lion was previously defeated by current mayor Nir Barkat in 2013.
Lion is running against Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin; ex-deputy Jerusalem mayor and current Knesset member for the Kulanu party Rachel Azaria; political activist and councilor Ofer Berkovitch; little-known Avi Salman; and Palestinian activist Aziz Abu Sarah, and others. Former candidate Yossi Havilio dropped out of the race earlier this month. Elkin, Lion and Berkovitch are seen as the front-runners in the first round of voting set for late October.
Another ultra-Orthodox faction, Agudath Yisrael, had previously endorsed Yossi Deitch for mayor, prompting Deitch, a Haredi candidate, to begin campaigning. However, on Thursday, Agudath Yisrael appeared poised to support Elkin’s candidacy — a move that would likely see Deitch withdraw from the race.
“There’s a feeling of betrayal,” a source in Agudath Yisrael told the Kan public broadcaster, responding to the Lion endorsements. “Agudath Yisrael will likely support Elkin. Elkin is no less religious than Lion. Elkin is not a confidant of [secularist Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman, who never misses an opportunity to attack anything religious.”
Elkin told Israel Radio on Thursday that Agudath Yisrael would likely announce its support later in the day.
“I am certain that Agudath Yisrael will support me,” he said. “There will be surprises in the coming hours.”
Even without an endorsement from Agudath Yisrael, Elkin received a small consolation prize from one ultra-Orthodox faction with Eli Yishai’s Yachad party announcing that it would support him.
Yishai, a former top Shas politician, broke away from the party after losing a bitter leadership battle with its current head, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. He formed the Yachad party in December 2014 ahead of the 2015 national elections, but failed to clear the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset.
Elkin, a Likud cabinet minister, meanwhile accused his fellow ministers Liberman and Deri of working behind his back to prop up Lion, a longtime friend of the two government party leaders.
“After they denied and hid it for months, Liberman and Deri’s plan to again try and take over Jerusalem by running Moshe Lion — who in all the polls has earned one-digit percentages of support from the residents — has been revealed,” said Elkin in a statement on Wednesday night.
Lion, in response, accused Elkin of “inciting” against him.
“What a shame that Elkin is losing it and is having a hard time concealing his disappointment, but more seriously, he is engaging in incitement and divisiveness,” said Lion in a Thursday statement.
Liberman, speaking on Army Radio, called Elkin a “crybaby.”
“Take responsibility and say that you failed. Don’t find others to blame,” he said of his cabinet colleague.
The fight over the ultra-Orthodox vote is central to the October 30 race, representing some 37% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, according to recent CBS data (the Arab population of Jerusalem boycotts the municipal elections).
A Jerusalem council member for five years, Lion received the backing of much of the Haredi community in the city in the 2013 mayoral race, but was nonetheless defeated by Barkat.
In August, prosecutors announced they would not pursue corruption charges against Lion, citing insufficient evidence. He had been suspected of illegally giving money to Shas party leader Aryeh Deri in 2013 in exchange for supporting his failed mayoral bid.