Jerusalem race for new mayor goes down to wire

Moshe Lion got more than 79,000 votes (33 percent). Ofer Berkovitch got 68,000 votes (29 percent) on Oct. 30. Now, the two face off on Nov. 13 for the city’s top job.

Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovich arrives at his campaign headquarters as he leads the early counting in the Municipal Elections for Jerusalem on Oct. 30, 2018. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovich arrives at his campaign headquarters as he leads the early counting in the Municipal Elections for Jerusalem on Oct. 30, 2018. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.

Jerusalemites will once again vote on Tuesday to elect their city’s next mayor. The contest headed for a run-off election on Oct. 30, as none of the candidates reached the 40 percent threshold needed to secure a victory.

Now, residents must decide who will be crowned king of the City of Gold: Moshe Lion or Ofer Berkovitch.

The Jerusalem race—considered to reflect the pulse of the nation—has drawn attention to fierce divisions between the country’s secular and religious camps, as well as the political hurdles that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might face in the next election. The candidate he endorsed, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, was ousted in the first round of voting, finishing third with only 20 percent of the vote. Analysts say that this could be an indication that Netanyahu’s influence is waning.

After Elkin’s loss, the local branch of the Likud Party came out in support of Lion.

Similarly, several top politicians have expressed support for Lion, including Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, among others.

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion at a recent campaign event. Credit: Meir Elifor.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also endorsed Lion last week.

“I believe that the choice of Moshe Lion in the second round is a choice for the benefit of Jerusalem,” Barkat said in a statement. “Moshe Lion has the ability to lead the city for the benefit of all residents. From my familiarity with both candidates and my work with both, I have no doubt that Lion is the best choice for Jerusalem.”

But Berkovitch has a stronger, grassroots base in Jerusalem. He managed to secure seven seats in the 31-member city council, the largest number of any party. Lion, on the other hand, failed to pick up a single seat.

Lion got more than 79,000 votes (33 percent). Berkovitch got 68,000 votes (29 percent) on Oct. 30.

In a final interview with JNS ahead of the runoff, Berkovitch promised that if elected on Tuesday, he would work with all the city’s diverse constituents, including the city’s large number of haredi residents.

“Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemites are a part of Jerusalem’s unique and beautiful mosaic,” he said. “The diversity in Jerusalem is what makes it the most amazing city, and I believe that the needs of the ultra-Orthodox must be addressed like the needs of any other residents.”

He said he has no opposition to taking ultra-Orthodox city council members into his coalition, but that it is “too early to speak of the makeup of the coalition.” However, he said any member of his coalition must “accept the basic coalition guidelines, including ensuring the survival of the Zionist population.”

Speaking their language?

In a video released on Saturday evening, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri appeared to compare Berkovitch to the devil and said he would desecrate the city.

“The devil is enlisting everyone,” Deri said, noting that “all the great rabbis of Israel support him [Lion] against a non-religious candidate who literally wants to continue to transform Jerusalem and turn our holy city into a city like any other city.”

Lion has, in fact, received greater support from haredi rabbinical leadership, but analysts say that several young haredim, mostly in their 30s or younger, are defying their rabbis and choosing which candidate they prefer—and for many of them, that person is Berkovitch.

Further, more moderate rabbinical leaders, such as Rabbi Michael Melchior, a leading interreligious peace-builder in Israel, have stood up for Berkovitch. On Sunday, Melchior posted on Facebook that he would be voting for the more liberal candidate on Tuesday.

“After long conversations with him and his team,” wrote Melchior in Hebrew, “I am convinced he will be an excellent mayor for all of Jerusalem’s constituents.”

Similarly, in a message posted on Nov. 9, Rabbi Benny Lau wrote, “I hope we will get a mayor who will be a public emissary and not a puppet of those who endorse him.” The comments’ thread supports the understanding that Lau will be casting his ballot for Berkovitch.

Berkovitch told JNS that if elected, one of the first things he will do is “make a survey of the unique immigrant communities in Jerusalem in order to understand which services they use most from the municipality and begin to provide these services in their own language to ensure they can access information.”

He noted that he has a full platform for new immigrants, which focuses on employment, integration into educational systems, access to information in many languages and access to cultural events.

In contrast, in an October interview with The Jerusalem Post, when Lion was asked what he would do to help English-speaking immigrants to the city, he stated that English-speakers were set, and he would help the French.

Tensions mount in final days of campaigning

JNS asked Berkovitch what he would do if a synagogue attack like the one in Pittsburgh took place in a Reform Temple in Jerusalem. He replied that those killed in terrorist attacks were victims of an anti-Semitic attack and should be remembered as such.

“The denomination of a particular victim is not relevant,” said Berkovitch. “We should support all of their close ones and families; this is especially true when a Jew is attacked for his or her identity. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: ‘We are all one people and should stand together in solidarity.’ ”

Lion told The Post in October that he has not been to a Reform synagogue “due to religious reasons.” He would not comply with an interview for JNS.

Berkovitch said one of his goals is to make the holy city more accessible for visitors from abroad. He said on his agenda is infusing the holy city with more lower-priced hotels.

“It is vital that Jerusalem [be] accessible for more than just high-income tourists,” he told JNS. “There has been some improvement with hostels and hotels, thanks to the good work of Nir Barkat over the past mandate; however, not enough has been done.”

The final days before the run-off have been filled with tension in Jerusalem, especially from Lion’s camp, who has multiple times per day sent messages to Berkovitch to drop out of the election, including disseminating a WhatsApp message on Sunday claiming a complaint was filed with the Israel Police against Berkovitch on suspicion of “forgery and fraud.”

Last Saturday night in a video statement, Lion called on Berkovitch to “stop.”

“Stop dividing our city and its residents,” he said. “Stop causing fear and threatening. Stop saying that only those who support you are real Jerusalemites … You can relax, Ofer. When I become mayor, I will make room in my coalition for members of your Hitorerut Party.”

In contrast, Berkovitch complimented Lion in his interview with JNS. He thanked Lion for staying in the city after losing the last election to incumbent Mayor Nir Barkat.

“Although I have criticism of what he did in the city council,” said Berkovitch, “I was impressed that he stayed to serve, and I hope he continues to stay in Jerusalem out of his love for the city’s future.”

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