Jerusalem’s secular mayor fends off strong challenger to win reelection

Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images - Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, speaks to his supporters after winning the Jerusalem mayoral election on Wednesday.

JERUSALEM — The mayor of Jerusalem — a former high-tech venture capitalist who has been fighting to maintain the city’s secular and less strictly religious population — won reelection here as final votes were counted early Wednesday and his opponent conceded.

Mayor Nir Barkat faced a strong challenger, Moshe Leon, who was supported by two powerful political brawlers — and strange bedfellows: Avigdor Lieberman, founder of a nationalist, sometimes even anti-rabbinical party created to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Israelis, and Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas party, which serves ultra-Orthodox Jews whose roots are in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Leon’s loss will reflect less on the candidate and more on his patrons Lieberman and Deri, who are seen by supporters as political kingmakers in Israel — a designation that could take a hit after his defeat.

Barkat’s political base is built upon the middle-class, center-right Jerusalem Jews who are less strict in their religious practices than the ultra-Orthodox residents, who now make up about one-third of the city.

Barkat’s demographic had been shrinking in recent years, a phenomenon he struggled to reverse by improving public schools, building parks and encouraging entertainment and restaurants that would be open on the Jewish Sabbath.

Turnout in Tuesday’s municipal elections to choose mayors and city and regional council members across Israel was described as “disappointing” and “dismal” by voting officials, with less than half of eligible voters going to the polls.

In Jerusalem, only 36 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, down from 43 percent five years ago.

Participation rates were even lower in Tel Aviv, where Mayor Ron Huldai appeared to be headed toward another term, besting a fellow liberal, Nitzan Horowitz. If Horowitz had won, he would have been the first big-city mayor in the Middle East who is openly gay.

Arab residents of Jerusalem mostly boycotted the municipal election, as they have in the past. Palestinians in Jerusalem do not vote because they believe to do so would legitimize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem — the part of the city Palestinian leaders want to see as the capital of a future state.

But outside Jerusalem, participation by Arab Israelis was high in the cities where they are the dominant population, with 70 percent or more going to the polls.

The elections were mostly clean. On Tuesday, authorities arrested several people who were found with 250 identification cards, a list of polling places and changes of clothing at an apartment in the town of Beit Shemesh.

Beit Shemesh has been a flash point recently between secular and Orthodox Jews. The secular challenger, Eli Cohen, was besting incumbent ultra-Orthodox Mayor Moshe Abutbul, but the race was too close to call early Wednesday morning.

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.