The apparent victory of a secular businessman in Jerusalemâ€™s mayoral elections was greeted with relief by Israelis concerned about the increasing Orthodox character of the city.
Early exit polls Tuesday showed Nir Barkat, a city councilman and high-tech entrepreneur, leading the fervently Orthodox candidate, Rabbi Meir Porush, by several percentage points. The other viable candidate in the race, Russian-Israeli tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak, appeared to be headed for a distant third-place finish in the single digits.
If Barkatâ€™s lead holds, his election would wrest control of City Hall from the hands of the fervently Orthodox.
While Jerusalemâ€™s current mayor, the haredi Uri Lupolianski, is widely seen as sympathetic to secular concerns, his would-be successor, Porush, is not thought to have the same sympathies.
Earlier this month, Porush told a fervently Orthodox crowd that “in another 15 years there will not be a secular mayor in any city in Israel.â€ His remarks, delivered in Yiddish at a yeshiva, were not intended for public consumption, but Porush was unaware that an Orthodox radio station was broadcasting his remarks live.
Porushâ€™s spokesman acknowledged that the candidate, a veteran fixture of Israelâ€™s Orthodox political scene and a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, is a proponent of Orthodox-only cities.
The apparent victory by Barkat, a self-made millionaire and venture capitalist, returns Jerusalemâ€™s mayoralty to secular leadership at a pivotal time for the Israeli capital.
With one-third of its residents Orthodox and one-third Arab, Jerusalem is Israelâ€™s largest city and its poorest. The city is wracked by political and religious divisions, and its young, secular population is dwindling due to a dearth of affordable real estate, limited job opportunities and what some decry as an increasingly Orthodox character.
During the campaign, many Jerusalemites pointed to the controversy surrounding a celebration in June marking the opening of a new bridge at the western entrance to the city as emblematic of the battle for Jerusalemâ€™s soul.
At the ceremony, a fervently Orthodox deputy mayor compelled a teenage girlsâ€™ dance troupe to wear hats and long, loose-fitting clothing so as not to offend the sensibilities of Orthodox viewers. Many Jerusalemites and Israelis were outraged, blaming Lupolianski for what they called the Taliban-style outfits.
For these residents of Jerusalem, Barkatâ€™s election is a welcome change from the five years of Lupolianskiâ€™s leadership.
â€œThere is the sense that if another ultra-Orthodox mayor gets elected, the cityâ€™s last secular residents will leave,â€ one voter told Israelâ€™s Channel 10 News on Election Day. â€œThereâ€™s a feeling that this is the last chance for this city.â€
Tuesday’s vote was marred by some irregularities. Barkat voting slips apparently disappeared from some polling stations, and his Web site was victimized by hackers who redirected surfers to Porushâ€™s site. At another polling station, a group of Orthodox men reportedly hurled a stone at a police officer, lightly injuring him, in a bid to bar people from voting. Police dispersed the group.
During the campaign, Barkat campaigned on a platform of investing in the cityâ€™s tourism-based economy and ensuring that Israelâ€™s capital city remains majority Jewish.
â€œWe have to build Jerusalem economically,â€ Barkat told JTA in an interview earlier this year. â€œJerusalem has only 1.5 million tourists that come annually. We have more to offer than any city. We have to open Jerusalem up to the global tourism marketplace.â€
While the turnout exceeded the last municipal elections, in 2003, the vast majority of Jerusalem Arabs stuck to their policy of refusing to participate in the cityâ€™s elections.
Tuesday also saw municipal elections in dozens of other cities and towns across Israel, from Tel Aviv to Sderot.