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.