Israel prepares for its general election next February with municipal and mayoral elections to be held throughout the country tomorrow. Jerusalem, the largest city, is the flashpoint and the race has highlighted religious rifts splitting the city and, by extension, the entire country. Although the major parties do not contest mayoral elections, the vote will give some indication of the thinking in advance of the national poll.
The two leading contenders for the job are ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Meir Porush, 53, and Nir Barkat, 49, a moderate city councillor and high-tech entrepreneur. Neither is likely to win the race outright and will rely on middle ground. Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the contest has become a culture war and a battle between secular and religious forces. There could be a backlash by voters against religious parties in the countrywide ballot if Porush wins, Sandler said.
Porush has asked not to be judged by the length of his beard but there is little doubt he plans to promote an ultra-religious agenda if elected. Last week he stirred the pot by saying no Israeli city would have a secular mayor within 10 to 15 years. While his speech was delivered in Yiddish and intended for a private audience of supporters, they were taped and shown on TV news with Hebrew subtitles. "We are growing and multiplying at a fast pace,” he said. “Within 10 years there will not be a secular candidate at all in any city, except maybe in an abandoned village.”
If this wasn’t enough to worry people in secular neighbourhoods, they are also concerned their areas have been encroached in recent years by the ultra-Orthodox. Pnina Dadon told The Guardian her west Jerusalem district has seen a steady increase in synagogues and religious kindergartens. The original inhabitants are moving out. "The secular people are running away, especially the young. They just don't feel comfortable any more," said Dadon. "It's not that I hate them. It's just that I want my freedom."
But the campaign of secular candidate Nir Barkat is not without its issues either. His concern, similar to Dadon’s, is young people fleeing the capital in greater numbers. His plan is to build thousands of new apartments in East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied after the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed. Such settlements would not win Israel any friends internationally and would present further obstacles to peace with the Palestinians. But Barkat is not fussed by international opinion. "The young people are leaving Jerusalem," he says. "This is a real danger to Jerusalem's future and causes a decline in the general standard of living in the city."
The third candidate in the Jerusalem election is the Russian-born wildcard billionaire Arcady Gaydamak who is attempted to court the Arab vote. This will be difficult as the elections are a purely Jewish affair. Most Palestinian residents, who make up almost a third of the city's 700,000 population, are expected to boycott the election as they have done since Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967. "Our religious and national positions on the issue are clear,” said Mohammed Hussein, mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. “They forbid participation as a voter or a candidate in these elections for an authority that represents the Israeli occupation.”
But Jerusalem activist Akram Salhab disagrees with this strategy. He says the boycott is an example of “the lazy thinking” dominating the Palestinian political scene. He says real gains are sacrificed to maintain a purely symbolic boycott that doesn’t achieve anything for the Arab population. Despite having 30 percent of the population, they only receive about 10 percent of council funding. “In the blink of an eye you are transported from a modern, well maintained high street with neatly painted red and white curbs, to a pot-hole ridden road from somewhere in the third world,” he says.