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Avigdor Lieberman used the Jerusalem mayoral election to attempt a right-wing takeover of Likud (and almost got away with it)

Israel/Palestine
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Overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. (Photo: Allison Deger)

Overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. (Photo: Allison Deger)

Yesterday Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat barely kept his seat as mayor of Jerusalem in Israel’s municipal elections. Representing the Likud party, Barkat was just able to fend off rivals from religious and nationalist parties further to the right who had joined forces to oust the incumbent. Although Barkat survived, the Jerusalem race foreshadows a steeper plunge to the right across Israeli politics as pro-settler secular and religious parties vie to takeover Likud from the inside.

Last week Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri announced in a radio address that he was mobilizing both religious and nationalist groups to vote across party lines for Moshe Leon, a Likud candidate. He explained this was a shrewd political move to sever Likud’s ties to centrist parties like Yesh Atid and Labor. Deri encouraged voters to support a Likud candidate backed by religious-nationalist groups aligned with Avigdor Lieberman who are seeking to overhaul the character of Israel’s leading political party. “It’s impossible to dismantle this coalition without Avigdor Lieberman,” reflected Deri. He lobbied for the Haredi-right to forget their differences with the secular-nationalists headed by Lieberman, and unite to takedown the Likud coalition. Understanding politics is a chess game, Deri told his followers, that they can only evict Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid by working with Lieberman and backing his candidate. “If right now, we gnash our teeth, and the Haredi public doesn’t unite around Moshe Leon’s candidacy, I tell you that we’ve lost our chance to dismantle this coalition for the next three years,” said Deri.

And the plan almost worked.

Avigdor Lieberman handpicked Moshe Leon to unseat Barkat in an effort to sabotage Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party. Netanyahu is in the thick of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and Lieberman wants Israel to walk away. Lieberman has openly supported the “transfer” of Palestinians, a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. So now Lieberman is trying to take down Likud from within by filling the party with right-wing characters that will destroy their tenuous bond with leftist and moderate parties.

Nir Barkat is a prime example of someone Lieberman wants to drive from the party. Barkat has a strong following among Jerusalem’s secular Israelis for bringing international events to the city, similar to Tel Aviv. Lieberman’s choice, Leon, is a career politician who occasionally swings through the revolving door for positions in private construction and has close ties to Jerusalem’s right-wing settler movement. For example, Leon backed settler leader Aryeh King, who built a name for taking over Arab houses in Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods in his campaign for city council. In the run up to elections, King appeased rightists by saying he would close green spaces at night in order to prevent Palestinians from “terrorizing Jewish girls” and would make the Muslim call to prayer illegal. “It’s a problem that causes suffering for everyone, both Arabs and Jews. It cannot be that people are woken up at 4:30 in the morning,” said King. To this, Leon’s team released a statement citing King as “a patriot, both local and national,” and said he would be a prime “partner for a future coalition.”

These types of positions drew attention from Israel’s religious Jewish communities who bet on Leon to oust Barkat with the hope he would use his position to enact more conservative legislation and increase social services. Daniel Ronaldo-Danhan, 19, spoke to me a day before polls opened while scanning and bagging candy and chips in a market in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. “Nir Barkat wants to change the city to Tel Aviv with parties and a nightlife,” he complained. But Leon, “he’s religious and a good person and he doesn’t want to change the city into something that it’s not.”

Ronaldo-Danhan hoped his next municipal leader would make drastic changes, namely implementing a system of segregation between Jewish-Israelis and the city’s some 250,000 Palestinian Jerusalem residents. Like Leon, Ronaldo-Danhan is a follower of settler mogul Arieh King. “[Leon is] with Arieh King and they both want to separate the Jews and the Arabs. Not like Nir Barkat. He wants us to mix!” exclaimed the young grocer. Ronaldo-Danhan went on to lament that he “feels forced to mix with them [Palestinians]. I think it’s good if we live in the same place,” he said while parting his hands, “but not together.”

Despite the grocer’s enthusiasm, a blasé attitude towards elections could be felt across the city. Others I interviewed, they had no plans to vote. And Palestinians with Jerusalem resident IDs boycotted the elections all together, as they have done since 1967. Exit polls showed a low turnout for Israeli-Jews too, with the overall turnout barely breaking 40 percent.

Four years ago after failing to build a coalition during national elections Tzipi Livni remarked that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud was forming in Israel “the most right-wing government in its history.” With the help of Lieberman, Netanyahu took a hold of office by out maneuvering Livni and strong-arming smaller parties to join their coalition. Today, Lieberman and his bloc of religious-nationalist parties—at least in Jerusalem—plan to do the same to Netanyahu. If Lieberman had clinched the mayorship for Leon, his hand plucked golden boy, Israeli politics would have undergone a right-wing revolution in Jerusalem. In fact, Leon didn’t even bother with scoring votes from the Likud base, he almost exclusively campaigned to Haredi groups. Lieberman and Leon were only tripped up by a scandal that surfaced in the closing days of the race. Last week Leon polled at 100% of the Haredi vote, but that number dropped to 50% following fraud accusations against Leon. Voters seemed worried Leon would end up in jail instead of the mayor’s seat.

Still Leon won 45% of the vote, with Barkat receiving only 50%. Jerusalem might have made it out of this election cycle with the status quo intact, but if Lieberman continues at the current trajectory the next mayoral race could tell a different story.

 

Allison Deger
About Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Mondoweiss.net. Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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10 Responses

  1. Krauss
    Krauss
    October 23, 2013, 4:46 pm

    The real threat to Bibi comes from within the party, not outside it.
    Ze’ev Elkin, Danny Dayon, Yariv Levy, these people are in their 30s and 40s and will dominate Likud over the coming generations and likely Israel, too.

    In the last party elections – that is, the intra-Likud elections – most of the “moderates” in Likud got wiped out.
    Bibi, who is hard-right, is getting outflanked to his right by the ultra-right.
    The people who don’t even pretend to care about democracy and outright embrace fascism, instead of merely slowly but surely facilitating its rise.

    • traintosiberia
      traintosiberia
      October 23, 2013, 7:28 pm

      It is Israel’s GOP moment. Relatively rightwinger Bush is being replaced with figures like Romney, Santorum , Alan Keys, Newt,and Huckabee. But the party is over

      • seafoid
        seafoid
        October 24, 2013, 8:57 am

        The GOP is finished. Voters don’t want ideological purity and they can’t sell their spiel to Latinos.

      • wondering jew
        wondering jew
        October 24, 2013, 10:53 pm

        The GOP is predicted to control the House of Representatives through the year 2022 (due to gerrymandered safe seats accomplished by the state houses voted in in the GOP off year romp of 2010). Not yet over.

      • Krauss
        Krauss
        October 25, 2013, 3:21 pm

        Yeah, seafoid, but whatever you want to say about the GOP they have tried to limit, but not expell the non-white population. And crucially, they have not had help from the other side. While in Israel, the left is as committed to a the shrinking of the Palestinian population as the right is; the only difference is the tactics.

        While the GOP is doomed as a party, Likud will not be doomed because the demographics favour the settlers in Israel while the GOP base is mostly older, conservative white voters who are shrinking as a population.

        So what is happening in the Likud now will not be the end of the party, but rather a new chapter in the increased fascism of the country.

      • seafoid
        seafoid
        October 27, 2013, 5:00 pm

        Krauss

        Likud are putting a bigger engine into Zionism but it just means the crash will be bigger.
        I wonder what will be left of Judaism when TSHTF.

  2. Henry Norr
    Henry Norr
    October 23, 2013, 6:28 pm

    The right wing “almost got away with” a takeover of Likud? Geez, this makes it sound as if the Likud weren’t already controlled by right-wing, pro-settler, ultra-nationalist forces! Clearly Lieberman, Leon, Shas, et al., want to push it even further to the right, and it’s noteworthy that they failed in this particular instance, but let’s not forget that Jabotinsky disciple Menachem Begin created the Likud in the first place to be a coalition of the Israeli right, led by his own Herut party, which originated among the Irgun terrorists in 1948. In recent years it’s been moving steadily further right, as witnessed in last year’s party elections (see, for instance, “Likud primary results show dramatic rightward shift in party hierarchy.” Their only problem is that they’re having trouble competing with the rapid growth of even-further-right forces.

  3. wondering jew
    wondering jew
    October 23, 2013, 10:16 pm

    Allison wrote: “(four years ago) With the help of Lieberman, Netanyahu took a hold of office by out maneuvering Livni and strong-arming smaller parties to join their coalition.”

    This is silliness.

    Livni was not out maneuvered (unless you are referring to the fact that she decided to go to elections rather than take the p.m seat when Olmert resigned, because Shas wanted her to promise not to compromise on Jerusalem in talks with the P.A. and she refused to make such a promise). She was out voted. On election night she claimed victory because her party had the most seats. But the right wing had more seats than the left wing and that’s how Netanyahu took hold of office, no outmaneuvering involved. Just normal Israeli coalition politics.

    • annie
      annie
      October 23, 2013, 11:38 pm

      no outmaneuvering involved. Just normal Israeli coalition politics.

      but isn’t “normal Israeli coalition politics” or ‘normal’ coalition politics any/everywhere for that matter, all about maneuvering..and outmaneuvering?

  4. seafoid
    seafoid
    October 24, 2013, 10:21 am

    Barkat is hardly progressive- he did nothing for the EJ Palestinians while in office. So if he is sidelined by a neo fascist it is not like anything is going to change on the ground in Beit Hanina.
    It’s like replacing a Texas Republican with a Tea Party member – what will it mean for the GLBT community ?

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