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News Analysis: Differing Spins on Significance of Likud Victories in Mayoral Bids

When the polls closed this week, the Likud party had good reason to celebrate with songs and champagne at its national headquarters.

Although Likud scored many important victories in Israel’s countrywide municipal elections Tuesday, however, the implications of the local results for national political issues are not yet clear.

In the broadest view, it appears that the Labor Party’s win in last year’s national elections had no coattail effect on this week’s municipal voting.

When it comes to viewing the results as a referendum on the government’s peace initiatives with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the municipal vote probably will be the subject of lengthy debate.

Likud candidates will become the mayors of 22 of Israel’s 44 largest towns. Labor candidates scored victories in only 10, while several other contests will be decided in runoff elections later this month.

There were individual ups and downs, with Labor ousting Likud incumbents in Netanya and Holon, and Likud defeating Labor incumbents in Bat Yam and Beit Shemesh.

In Tel Aviv, Knesset member Ronni Milo of Likud defeated Labor’s Avigdor Kahalani.

The most dramatic victory, however, came in the capital. After serving nearly three decades as Jerusalem’s mayor, Teddy Kollek ended a distinguished career when he was defeated Tuesday by Likud Knesset member Ehud Olmert.

In what was anything but a gentlemanly campaign, Olmert, 47, targeted the octogenarian Kollek as too old and tired to effectively serve another term in office.

Kollek, of the Labor-affiliated “One Jerusalem” faction, maintained that Olmert would bring a right-wing taint to the office that would adversely affect the future of this city.

Kollek’s resounding defeat by some 15 percentage points was a definite blow to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had personally campaigned for the incumbent mayor.

‘NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HIM AND ME’

In addition, it was Rabin himself who had asked voters to view the Jerusalem election as a referendum on his peace initiatives with the PLO.

But Olmert’s victory cannot be seen purely in right-left terms. His win also can be seen as the result of an 11th-hour deal he struck with the Orthodox parties.

Following discussions with Olmert, the United Torah Judaism Front candidate, Meir Porush, withdrew from the mayoral contest. Acting on the subsequent prompting of the religious bloc’s leaders, 85 percent of the fervently religious voters in the capital voted for Olmert.

Kollek’s campaign struggled desperately to persuade Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem to vote. But tallies indicate that fewer than 7,000 Arabs turned out at the polls.

Kollek’s campaign had been hoping that 20,000 Palestinians would turn out in the capital to support him.

A bitter Kollek blamed his defeat on the many non-Orthodox Jerusalemites who stayed at home. Only 35 percent of those eligible showed up to vote. Secular Jews stayed home in droves, thwarting Kollek’s re-election chances.

“Jerusalem is going to go now in the wrong direction,” the 82-year-old mayor predicted. “I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I am not.”

Labor activists and neutral observers wondered whether it had been wise to persuade Kollek to run instead of seeking a younger man.

Kollek himself enraged many of his longtime supporters by grooming, then dumping, a series of potential successors.

Rabin, in his post-election comments, noted that the peace negotiations would be that much more difficult with a Likudnik running Jerusalem.

Olmert, in turn, said, “There is no difference between him and me, if it is the policy of the prime minister not to relinquish any part of Jerusalem.”

With the nastiness of the campaign behind him, he was more concerned with portraying himself as the conciliator.

After his victory, Olmert told his enthusiastic supporters that he was planning “to call for real reconciliation between Jews and Jews, Jews and Arabs.”

“I will take care of the needs of the Arab population in a fair and just way,” he promised.

Likud party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said after the vote that his party had recovered from its setback in last year’s national elections.

Netanyahu, in remarks to reporters, predictably sought to invest local results in Jerusalem and elsewhere with national political significance.

“What would people have said,” he asked rhetorically, “had it gone the other way?”

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