Amid fears that Jerusalem was on the way to becoming an increasingly ultra-Orthodox-run city, secular businessman Nir Barkat won a decisive victory in Tuesday’s mayoral election, defeating an Orthodox rabbi and an Israeli-Russian billionaire and ending five years of haredi leadership.
In his victory speech, the 49-year-old venture capitalist and former computer entrepreneur claimed that he had “liberated” Jerusalem from fervently Orthodox rule and promised to be the mayor of all residents.
“This city belongs to you, too,” he told the secular and Modern Orthodox Jews of the city.
It was Barkat’s second race for mayor of Israel’s capital city. He lost in 2003 to Uri Lupolianski by fewer than 20,000 votes and blamed his loss on “so many in the Zionist sectors — secular and Modern Orthodox — [who] failed to vote.”
On Tuesday, about 41 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots, up from 38 percent five years ago.
About one-third of the city’s 750,000 residents are fervently Orthodox, another third are East Jerusalem Arabs, and the rest are evenly split between the secular and Modern Orthodox.
Official results gave Barkat slightly more than 52 percent of the vote and Meir Porush of the United Torah Judaism party just over 43 percent. Despite appeals to the Arabs for their vote, Russian billionaire Arkady Gaydamak won just 3.5 percent of the vote as the Arabs continued their practice of boycotting the election.
On Sunday, Rabbi Porush had boasted that within 10 years fervently Orthodox mayors would be elected in every city in the country where their communities dominate. He told Israel television: “We are growing and multiplying at a fast pace, and within 10 years there will not be a secular candidate at all in any city, except maybe in an abandoned village.”
In analyzing the election results, one source in the Barkat campaign pointed out that five years ago Modern Orthodox Jews voted for Lupolianski by a 3-to-1 ratio. But he said they turned Barkat this time because as mayor, Lupoliansky “invested more in the ultra-Orthodox sector at the expense of others.”
Many observers felt that Barkat could revitalize business in Jerusalem, Israel’s poorest city, and that Rabbi Porush would be more concerned about catering to the concerns of his haredi constituents.
There were also fears about the demographic change occurring in Jerusalem. In the last five years, some 84,000 Jews — mostly secular and Modern Orthodox — moved out of the city, creating a sense of urgency about a growing lock in future elections by the fervently Orthodox. Emigration raised concern also that the city would no longer have a Jewish majority in 25 years.
“There was a feeling that if a change doesn’t happen now it will be much more difficult next time to change the trends,” the campaign aide said.
Another reason for Barkat’s victory was internal divisions within the fervently Orthodox world, according to media reports. For instance, members of the Gur chasidim voted against Porush because of a fight over support for their educational system. At the same time, internal divisions in Porush’s own United Torah Judaism party may have undercut support.
Supporters of outgoing Mayor Lupoliansky, who was forced to step aside to let Porush run because of an agreement to rotate the leadership among the party’s two main factions, were said to have supported Barkat to “teach him a lesson."
“I’m not surprised,” said Knesset Member Avraham Ravitz. “The polls showed that Lupoliansky would do better than Porush. Lupoliansky is accepted among diverse constituencies.”
Eli Yishai, the leader of Shas, another fervently Orthodox party, called Porush’s defeat a “painful loss” and also blamed it on the internal rifts among the fervently Orthodox.
Ravitz noted that the Modern Orthodox in the city felt shut out of the leadership under Lupoliansky.
“There were claiming that the ultra-Orthodox hogged the rule,” he said. “They don’t like ultra-Orthodox; they hate ultra-Orthodox even more than secular."
The election was also seen as an anti-Porush vote rather than a pro-Barkat vote because Porush alienated many with his “arrogance” and Barkat did not run a particularly good campaign, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“Barkat has no charisma and is not a rising Israeli politician,” he said. “He is a non-ideological secular Israeli. He is not a militant secularist and not super wealthy. The city has deep problems and … they need to be addressed by someone who has a great deal of authority and is able to get the job done. Barkat is more of a technocrat.
“I’m skeptical about his ability to overcome the city’s difficult problems,” Steinberg continued. “Until now he has not shown any of Teddy’s charisma, his deep concern for the future of Jerusalem, and his ability to reach out to all and improve the quality of life in Jerusalem.”
He was referring to Teddy Kollek, who served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 until 1993.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz editorialized against Barkat, complaining that because he believed he had the secular and Modern Orthodox in his pocket, he was moving “into the arms of the right” by supporting the development of a Jewish neighborhood in a predominantly Arab area of Jerusalem near French Hill and the campus of the Hebrew University.
Barkat argued that building low-cost housing on about 50 acres there would strengthen the endangered Jewish presence in the area and provide housing for students and young couple who cannot afford homes elsewhere in the city.
The election came one day after the Knesset held its last session before the Feb. 10 legislative election. At that session, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke of the need for Israel to quickly return to roughly its 1967 borders or find itself with a bi-national state of Jews and Palestinians.
“We must relinquish Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and return to that territory which comprised the State of Israel until 1967, with the necessary amendments stemming from the realities created on the ground,” he said.
Olmert, who is embroiled in a corruption scandal, resigned the premiership in September and remains as head of an interim government until the February election.
Tzipi Livni, the newly elected head of the Kadima Party and the country’s foreign minister, quickly disassociated herself from Olmert’s comments. Last week, she and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and convinced her that it was not necessary to put in writing agreements that have already been reached in their peace talks. Both Livni and Abbas said Israeli-Palestinian talks would continue despite their inability to reach an agreement by their target date of next January.
Olmert said he is hoping to restart indirect talks with Syria that were postponed because of his resignation.