Secular, religious candidates square off in Jerusalem mayoral run-off

Jerusalemites are gearing up for a mayoral run-off between secular and religious candidates that has turned into a turbulent battle over power and influence in the holy city.

Israeli businessman Moshe Lion claimed crucial endorsements from outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the Orthodox Jewish Home party, bolstering his chances of becoming the city’s next mayor.

“I believe that electing Moshe Lion in the second round means choosing the good of Jerusalem and that is why I decided to support him,” said Barkat, a member of the Likud party who finished ahead of Lion in the 2013 mayoral race. “With Moshe Lion, Jerusalem will succeed.”

Lion, an Orthodox Jew who is popular with religious Zionists, already had the support of much of Jerusalem’s influential ultra-Orthodox community and right-wing Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He is to face secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch in the run-off November 13 after no candidate received at least 40% of the vote in the first round to win outright.

Lion, touting himself as a “unifier,” promised to revive Jerusalem’s economy, reach out to Palestinians and encourage young residents to stay in the city.

Berkovitch campaigned on a platform focused on economic development, infrastructure and education. He has stressed the importance of “tolerance” and “coexistence.”

“I’m the only candidate who is committed to the interest of Jerusalemites and not Lieberman or [ultra-Orthodox leader Aryeh] Deri or the centre of the Likud,” Berkovitch said at a recent rally.

The race for mayor of Jerusalem, a key position in Israeli politics, drew attention to fierce divisions in the country’s secular camp and political hurdles for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose candidate, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, was ousted in the first round of voting.

Elkin, a staunch supporter and close confidante of Netanyahu, finished third with 20% of the vote, an indication that Netanyahu’s influence could be waning, analysts said.

“He (Netanyahu) endorsed Likud’s Ze’ev Elkin only late in the race and half-heartedly but Elkin did not even make it to the second round,” wrote Israeli author Akiva Eldar in Al-Monitor. “The crushing defeat of Elkin — the Jerusalem affairs minister and a former close associate of Netanyahu — as well as the blow dealt to the Likud faction in the city council — which only won one seat — shows that Netanyahu’s support isn’t necessarily sufficient.”

Elder added: “Netanyahu might be losing his magic touch. There is no city with which Netanyahu’s political and personal identity is more closely linked than his hometown of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.”

Netanyahu has been embroiled in a corruption scandal implicating members of his inner circle, including his wife and cousin. He has repeatedly been questioned regarding corruption allegations and analysts warn an indictment could be looming.

After Elkin’s shock defeat, the local branch of the Likud party came out in support of Lion, citing his strong nationalist views. Elkin refrained from endorsing either run-off candidate.

Berkovitch lashed out at “backdoor deals” he said Lion had engaged in with ultra-Orthodox leaders and Barkat to pursue power.

“All [Lion’s] voters are one big political deal and he has no public legitimacy to lead Jerusalem,” said Berkovitch. “We’re going to win… We’re going to win from below. We’re going to defeat the wheeler-dealers. We’re going to win because the Jerusalemites understand what their politicians may not yet understand.”

Despite losing out on key endorsements, Berkovitch has a stronger power base in Jerusalem than Lion, whose J’lem party failed to pick up a single seat on the city council.

If he is elected mayor, Lion would need dispensation from the country’s Interior Ministry to oversee the council.

Palestinian residents, frustrated by growing Israeli settlements and poor infrastructure, are largely boycotting the mayoral race, which they say legitimises a system under which they are marginalised and underserved.

“I’m not willing to recognise the political rules of the game and to recognise or legitimise the Israeli occupation,” Rami Nasrallah, director-general of East Jerusalem’s International Peace and Cooperation Centre, told ynetnews.

Aziz Abu Sarah, the only Palestinian candidate to have vied for the position, dropped out of the mayoral race a month before the first round of elections after his residency status was questioned.

“It seems that entrenched political interest groups on both sides hope to maintain the status quo and will stop at nothing to prevent forward progress,” he wrote on Twitter.

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