The Wikipedia entry for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat reads, as of Sunday morning: “Barkat is currently running unopposed in the 2013 Jerusalem Mayoral elections.” If you look at the current polls, that assertion is not entirely false: a recent telephone poll run by Ma’agar Mochot showed Barkat with 52 percent among likely voters, while his only opponent, one Moshe Leon with only 13 percent. The problem is that among those same likely voters, people who assured pollsters that they have full intentions to show up at the ballot box next month, a full 35 percent are undecided.
That can be embarrassing to anyone running “unopposed” (the Leon people should get busy with that Wiki entry) this close to election day, October 22.
Add to it the fact that two of Israel’s best political manipulators, Israel Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman and Shas chief Aryeh Deri (the former facing a court sentence on corruption, the latter already spent time for embezzlement), have joined forces to back candidate Moshe Leon – and you’ve got yourself an open ended race where coming from behind might be a forgone conclusion for the challenger.
The funny thing is, Moshe Leon didn’t really know he was going to run for mayor of Jerusalem until the last minute. So much so, that he continued to live in Givatayim, one of the many cities attached to Tel Aviv (it’s a Burbank vs. LA proper thing), until he got the call from his former boss, Lieberman, and established residency in Jerusalem in the nick of time.
The Barkat camp contends that the reason Leon is running has to do with Lieberman’s need for revenge. A while ago, Barkat refused to appoint a Lieberman associate, Dr. Vladimir Sklar, to a senior post on the East Jerusalem Development Authority, and Liebrman, as anyone in Israel would tell you, is not very good at taking no for an answer.
Lumping together two of the most unpopular names in Israel’s politics of the moment, Lieberman and Deri, and suggesting the driving force of the Leon campaign is a grudge is an effective campaign device, but, alas, it leaves out many details.
For one thing, before there was a Lieberman or Deri involvement in the campaign, there was a deep, growing resentment against Mayor Barkat on the part of Likud and Haredi senior leaders in Jerusalem’s local politics. According to Ma’ariv, it was Eyal Chaymovski, a former chief of staff for the prime minister, who suggested Moshe Leon as the Likud candidate.
Lieberman was outraged by the mayor’s suggestion that he would lend his support to an effort to unseat Barkat based on one patronage job. “Jerusalem under [Barkat's] management has been going downhill over the last five years,” Lieberman told Ma’ariv. “It’s in the 135th spot in education achievements, behind [the Arab city of Teibe]. Housing prices have risen by 15 percent. Negative immigration is record breaking. [Jerusalem] has become a dirty city whose residents are paying higher city taxes than Kfar Shmaryahu and Savyon (Beverly Hills and Pasadena) and receiving services on a par with Damascus.”
About 240 thousand Jerusalemites will be voting come October 22, and about 100 thousand of them are Haredim. So, while Lieberman played a major role in getting Moshe Leon the Likud spot, it is Aryeh Deri who is expected to deliver the vast Haredi vote. The Shas leader has been taking his protégé to meetings with just about every Haredi leader, rabbi, rosh yeshiva and rebbe in the city. But not all the Haredim are necessarily friends of Likud or enemies of Barkat.
There are rumors Barkat is planning to expand municipal services, such as the train service, on Shabbat. That’s a huge no no for Haredi voters. And Barkat never took up the anti-religious mantel that works in other cities, most notably Tel Aviv. In fact, when it comes to National Religious Jerusalemites, some of whom are indistinguishable from the Haredim, they’re more likely to favor Barkat. But now, with the powerful enemies he’s suddenly facing this close to election day, his style is becoming a tad brittle.
His message regarding his opponent is that he would bring back the days in which the Haredi establishment was setting the tone in the city, with recreation places closing down and the air of freedom he has introduced in the city replaced by compulsory religious rule (the old kfiyah datit).
While Leon has been soliciting the Haredi votes—although there’s no such thing as a monolithic Haredi vote, not any more than there is such a vote in New York City—Barkat has received the endorsement of major National Religious figures, including Rabbi Chaim Druckman and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner.
Candidate Leon says he believes in maintaining the status quo between the religious and secular residents of Jerusalem. There is a palpable sense of such a status quo in Israel’s largest city. It will never be like Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, on Shabbat, goes the old saying, secular Jews put on white shirts.
I checked out the military service records of both candidates. The hi-tech entrepreneur Nir Barkat started out as a paratrooper who served six years in the IDF and fought in Lebanon. The certified accountant who was chief of staff for Netanyahu and chairman of Israel’s railways Moshe Leon served as a cantor in the Military Rabbinate Choir.
One of them will sit at the helm of one of the most important cities on the planet.
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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