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Jerusalem Mayoral Vote Presents Challenges for All Three Candidates

May 27, 2003
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Next week’s vote for mayor of Jerusalem will be unprecedented: For the first time since the reunification of the city in 1967, no major national figure is running.

The front-runners are three candidates who until now were little known: a hi-tech multimillionaire, a fervently Orthodox provider of auxiliary medical equipment and a loyal Likud Party functionary.

Likud leaders wanted former Finance Minister Dan Meridor, the man Menachem Begin predicted one day would be prime minister, to take the job. He politely declined.

Labor heavyweights Avraham Burg, Matan Vilnai, Dahlia Itzik and Ophir Pines-Paz all briefly toyed with the idea of running, but chose not to.

That left the field open to Nir Barkat, 43, director of BRM, a venture capital firm worth an estimated $250 million; acting mayor Uri Lupoliansky, 51, founder of Yad Sarah, the biggest volunteer organization in the country; and deputy mayor Yigal Amedi, 47, a Likud activist who has been involved in local party politics since his teens.

The June 3 election comes just four days after Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the reunification of the capital under Jewish rule in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But it also comes as the city’s future is more uncertain than ever: As momentum builds for new peace talks under the “road map” plan, Jerusalem’s fate is sure to be reopened as the Palestinians demand the eastern part of the city for the capital of their expected state.

The reason for this year’s election partly explains why major national players aren’t lining up for the race.

Former Mayor Ehud Olmert was forced to resign after being elected to the Knesset on the Likud ticket in January, because of a new law prohibiting Knesset members or Cabinet ministers from serving as mayors at the same time. Had Meridor, Burg or any of the other national politicians run, they would have had to leave behind the Knesset — and their national leadership aspirations — at least for the foreseeable future.

Olmert’s critics argue that he used the mayoral office to resurrect his national political career so blatantly that no one else would feel comfortable doing the same. All three front-runners feel obligated to stress that they would be “full-time” mayors in a way politicians with national aspirations never could.

Each is convinced he has a special contribution to make to the development of the capital in the 21st century.

Amedi, a self-made man from the poor Nahlaot neighborhood, claims to have an innate understanding of the city’s residents and their needs.

“There is not a stone in the city I don’t know,” he boasts, adding that he wants to be “the people’s mayor.” If elected, he would be the first Jerusalem-born incumbent.

Barkat is convinced he can revolutionize the way the city operates by applying the same standards of excellence that made him rich.

He sees running the city in terms of a customer-driven service market: The people — the customers — must be empowered to let the service provider, the city, know what they want, and the city must then provide those services with maximum efficiency. In Barkat’s view, the mayor’s job is to monitor all municipal services, from garbage collection to education, in terms of customer satisfaction and to demand constant improvement.

“We will put a mirror up to each and every department in the municipality, and I will demand that they keep raising their standards,” he says.

For example, schools that aren’t up to the mark will be closed, and their buildings handed over to successful schools that will be encouraged to expand and open new branches.

If he wins, Barkat would be the first mayor elected on a non-party ticket.

Lupoliansky’s flagship is Yad Sarah, which loans medical equipment to the sick and infirm, religious or secular, Jew or Arab, virtually free of charge. He claims its success is evidence of his ability to run large organizations, and that he will run the city in the same non-discriminatory way.

Lupoliansky — who became the city’s first fervently Orthodox mayor when he took over from Olmert in February — says he hopes to create a more caring community in which people from all sectors live in harmony.

“What burns in my bones is to build a city that will be a joy to live in, where everyone can dance to his own tune in his own place without stepping on anyone else’s toes,” he declares.

But running a city holy to three religions, at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with more than 3,000 years of history — and a population of 670,000 that is the largest, poorest and most ethnically diverse in the country — will take more than sloganeering.

For years young, mainly secular Israelis have been leaving the city in droves because of a perception of growing Orthodox influence on its lifestyle and because of a dearth of housing and job opportunities.

For example, 220,000 people work in Jerusalem every day; in Tel Aviv, with a population half as large, the figure is 340,000. Clearly, anyone who wants to keep young people in Jerusalem will have to bring in more businesses that provide jobs.

There are other pressing problems, too: the run-down state of the city center; the ongoing threat of Palestinian terrorism that keeps tourists away; light-rail infrastructure clogging up the roads; keeping the peace between fervently Orthodox and secular Jews, while allowing secular entertainment and travel on the Sabbath; dealing with social problems in poor neighborhoods; equalizing educational opportunities; restoring Jerusalem’s status as a great international city; and providing an acceptable level of services to Palestinians in the eastern part of the city.

With less than a week to go, polls show Barkat and Lupoliansky running neck and neck at around 40 percent, with Amedi winning 10 percent to 15 percent. If no candidate wins 40 percent on the first ballot, there will be a run-off between the top two finishers.

If that happens, Barkat, who would be expected to pick up most of the rest of the secular vote, would be the favorite.

Still, many secular Jerusalemites complain they have no one to vote for: Barkat’s critics fear he may try too much too soon and end up being a mayor for the rich, while Amedi’s critics say he is a good No. 2 but doesn’t have what it takes to be No. 1.

As for Lupoliansky, critics say that as talented and personable as he is, the fervently Orthodox establishment will force him to divert huge budgets to yeshivot and Orthodox schools.

The big question is whether the new mayor will be able to grow in stature and restore the city to its former glory.

That could depend on events outside his control — particularly on whether the road map ends terrorism, brings back tourists and investors and re-establishes Jerusalem, the holy pilgrim city, as a symbol of peace and spirituality.

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