Jerusalem mulls its future with mayor’s race


Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, right, stands with Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel on Aug. 11 at a promotional event for new housing units in the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatsiv in annexed east Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s time to elect a new mayor here, and municipal boosters like to say that Jerusalem is like any other world-class city, with its new light-rail line, its professional sports team and lots of $27 parking tickets.

Except that it’s not like other cities.

Arabs make up a third of the city’s residents, but most have historically boycotted the vote because they consider their land annexed by a foreign power.

Also setting Jerusalem apart: A powerful ultra-Orthodox rabbi could sway the election — from the grave.

To further complicate matters, even as voters weigh their choices in Tuesday’s election, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting in a secret location, arguing over whether to divide the city in two. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

But if there is one thing the two mayoral candidates agree upon, it’s that Jerusalem should never be divided.

“Jerusalem is off the table,” said the incumbent, Nir Barkat, who is running for reelection.

In an interview, Barkat said that Jerusalem has never been more open to all faiths, more international, more . . . normal.

“And we’re 10 times safer than the average American city,” he said, digging into a salad topped with grilled mushrooms in his penthouse offices overlooking the old and new quarters of the city.

Barkat is a multimillionaire high-tech venture capitalist who, in the style of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, accepts a token salary of one shekel, or about 28 cents, a year.

Barkat’s political base is built upon the middle-class, center-right Jerusalem Jews who are less religious than the ultra-Orthodox. It’s a demographic that has been shrinking in recent years, moving away to Tel Aviv as Jerusalem has become more devout and, to many, more dour.

Barkat is happy to nosh once in a while at non-kosher restaurants in a city dominated by strictures about what, where and when to eat. He likes to jog in a city that covers itself up, talks a lot about “branding” and tripling international tourism, and brought Formula One auto racing to the cobbled streets.

He boasts of being a right-winger with Arab support even as he has been a staunch defender of Zionist Jews’ right to build and own property in traditionally Arab quarters of the city.

He also bills himself as a kind of Mister Clean.

This is an accomplishment, considering that the previous two mayors of Jerusalem — Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski — are both standing trial for taking bribes to promote the construction of an upscale residential development called “Holyland.”

Challenger and his backers

The main challenger in the mayor’s race is an accountant and government apparatchik from a Tel Aviv suburb 45 miles away. Moshe Leon moved to Jerusalem only a few months ago, a point hammered home in the attack ads against him.

No matter. Leon’s campaign slogan is “Putting the Residents First.”

Jerusalem wags have said the slogan should have been “Getting Residency First.”

Leon was brought into the race by two powerful political bosses and strange bedfellows: Avigdor Lieberman, founder of an ultranationalist, sometimes even anti-rabbinical party that devotes itself to Russian-speaking immigrant Israelis, and Aryeh Deri, a member of parliament and the leader of the Shas party, which serves ultra-Orthodox Jews who originally hail from the Middle East and North Africa.

Lieberman, a former foreign minister and a leader of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, is on trial for intervening to promote an Israeli diplomat who could have helped Lieberman fight earlier charges of money laundering.

As for Deri, he served two years in prison for taking $155,000 in bribes when he served as interior minister. He returned to politics after a 13-year hiatus and is now considered a kingmaker.

In other countries, a corruption trial might derail a career, but here the joke is that the first question asked at the news conference featuring a disgraced politician is: “When will you announce your comeback?”

Voters assume their politicians are making mischief because the Israeli system runs on party patronage and state subsidies. A recent poll revealed that two-thirds of Israelis suspect their city halls are dens of corruption.

The voters mostly shrug.

City of challenges

Barkat says he inherited a 3,000-year-old city going down the drain.

Jerusalem is poor, and poorly educated, compared with most of Israel’s coastal cities. Many of the city’s residents rely on state subsidies for housing, education and child care.

The tourist and religious sites are well-scrubbed, but the city has a gritty underside.

Barkat is proud to have expanded the city’s light-rail line to Arab and Jew, rich and poor. Tourism is up and the number of cultural events has quadrupled. There are a couple of thousand new classrooms, a new sports complex, a renovated bazaar and the lively new Old Train Station, filled with restaurants and markets open on the Sabbath, a rarity in a city that shuts down on Friday evening.

“Jerusalemites are the happiest residents in the country,” Barkat said, citing government polls. “We didn’t leave any sector of our city behind.”

His challenger says the city is dirty. That appears to be his main campaign theme. “That’s the most important thing: I want a Jerusalem in which residents get up in the morning and first of all see a clean city,” Leon told the Times of Israel.

The mayor’s opponent has strong support among ultra-Orthodox voters, especially the ones who adored Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, who died this month. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets of Jerusalem for his funeral procession, effectively shutting down the city.

But unfortunately for the challenger, Rabbi Yosef never specifically called upon his flock to follow Leon. After his death, his Council of Sages said he did.

“The rabbis don’t want to be on the losing side, so they are holding back. Their support for Leon is lukewarm. They are waiting,” said Shalom Yerushalmi, political correspondent for the Maariv newspaper.

Barkat said his opponent is backed by a “shady bunch” who want access to the public trough. “What they want is more of the pork,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who apologized for using a non-kosher food item as a metaphor.

“And Barkat’s message is: ‘I am homegrown. I can’t be bought. I’m rich,’ ” said Hazan. “It will all depend on turnout. This could still be a very, very tight race.”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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