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

The international press may have paid less attention this time around, but Israel held its second set of elections within a 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, Nitzan Horowitz (48,000).

But even with Rihanna’s numbers, Horowitz still would have lost. The story of Tuesday’s election was re-election. The mayors of the country’s four biggest cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rishon Letzion) all won additional five-year terms. For Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, it will be his fourth term; 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 had a growing haredi Orthodox population and shrinking secular and modern Orthodox sectors — a trend first-term secular Mayor Nir Barkat has attempted to address. Barkat worked to increase the city’s job opportunities and cultural offerings and oversaw the launch of Jerusalem’s light-rail system.

Barkat defeated a haredi opponent in 2008, and faced a modern Orthodox challenger in this round, Moshe Leon, who only recently moved to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. Leon had the backing of a couple of powerful national politicians — former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Shas party chief Aryeh Deri — and he campaigned for the allegiance of Jerusalem’s haredi voters.

Barkat’s reelection with 51 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Leon was a rejection of haredi influence by the city’s voters. It was also a setback for Liberman, who is awaiting an impending verdict in his corruption trial, and for Deri, whose party’s spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, died earlier this month.

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

Tel Aviv: Rather than revolving around haredi 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 city’s massive social justice demonstrations. Horowitz, a member of Knesset from 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, who touted his 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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