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In Israel’s local (re)elections, implications for the national scene

by Ben Sales, JTA

October 23, 2013 | 9:56 am

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat prays at the Western Wall on Oct. 23. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat prays at the Western Wall on Oct. 23. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

The international press may have paid less attention this time around, but Israel held its second set of elections within one year yesterday – this time voting for mayors and city councils.

Israelis, for their part, seemed to share the rest of the world’s apathy for this ballot. While two-thirds of the country turned out to vote in January’s Knesset election, only 42 percent made it to their polling places yesterday.

In Tel Aviv, more people showed up at Rihanna’s concert last night (50,000) than voted for the mayoral runner-up, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz (48,000).

But even with Rihanna’s numbers, Horowitz still would have lost. The story of Tuesday’s election was reelection. The mayors of the country’s four biggest cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rishon Letzion) won another five-year term. For Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, it will be the fourth; by the end of this term, he will have governed the White City for two decades.

Incumbency even trumped concerns about corruption, as three mayors facing criminal charges won at the ballot box.

The Huldai-Horowitz race, along with a couple of others, held national implications.

Jerusalem: More than any other race, the capital city’s mayoral campaign captured Israel’s attention. Jerusalem has, during the past several years, had a growing Charedi Orthodox population and a shrinking secular and modern Orthodox sector – a trend combatted by first-term secular Mayor Nir Barkat. Barkat has increased the city’s job opportunities and cultural offerings, and oversaw the launch of the Jerusalem light rail system.

Barkat defeated a Charedi opponent in 2008, and faced a modern Orthodox challenger in this round, Moshe Leon – who actually lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. Leon had the backing of a couple of powerful national politicians – former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party Chair Aryeh Deri – and he campaigned for the allegiance of Jerusalem’s Charedi voters.

Barkat’s reelection, 51 percent to 45, was a rejection of Charedi influence by the city’s voters. It was also one more setback for Liberman – whose corruption trial comes to a verdict soon – and Deri – whose spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, died earlier this month.

Beit Shemesh: But the Charedi community showed its strength in Beit Shemesh, a central Israeli city also featuring a tense divide between a growing Charedi sector and a shrinking secular/modern Orthodox community. The secular/modern Orthodox sector united in a fierce campaign behind candidate Eli Cohen to unseat the city’s Charedi mayor, Moshe Abutbul, but Abutbul won reelection with 52 percent of the vote.

Tel Aviv: Rather than revolving around Charedi influence, the race in Israel’s secular mecca focused in part on ongoing discontent in the city’s (and country’s) middle class – a tension that consumed Israel’s attention in 2011 with the social justice protests in Tel Aviv. Horowitz, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party, tried to reignite that energy with a campaign that chided Huldai for focusing on improving the lives of the rich, at the expense of Tel Aviv’s poor and middle-class citizens. Had he won, Horowitz also would have been Israel’s first openly gay mayor.

But the voters chose Huldai, 58 percent to 41, who touted a record of making Tel Aviv a global destination and a vibrant, youthful city – with active boulevards, café culture, a busy beach and a range of cultural events. Huldai also rode to victory (pun intended) on the city’s popular bike-sharing program and expanded bike lanes, which his administration initiated. Huldai’s street ads simply featured an illustration of the mayor riding a bicycle above the slogan “A good leader.”

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