Skip to main content

Israeli right-wing minister runs for Jerusalem mayor

On the backdrop of proposals to detach Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem’s municipality, the candidacy of Minister Ze’ev Elkin for Jerusalem mayor could ignite the already volatile atmosphere in the city.

Jerusalem has been a source of great satisfaction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends on the pro-settlement right over the past year. The United States recognized the city as Israel’s capital and relocated its embassy there in May. This diplomatic coup boosted Netanyahu’s standing and his Likud party’s polling figures. The decision by veteran Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to run for a place on the Likud’s next Knesset list instead of running again at the Oct. 30 local elections turned his about-to-be-vacated mayor's office into a new quest for conquest. Netanyahu cannot afford to lose control over “the eternal capital of the Jewish people," whose residents go to the polls in municipal elections three months from now.

The decision by Ze’ev Elkin, the minister of Jerusalem affairs and minister of environmental protection, to run for the mayoralty should have made Netanyahu happy. Elkin is considered one of the most talented and serious members of the Likud party leadership, he is well known and enjoys support among national religious circles. However, much to the disappointment of this politician, who started his career in the now-defunct Kadima party, Netanyahu gave him the cold shoulder.

For over two months, since announcing his bid, Elkin pleaded for the prime minister’s blessing. The Ukrainian-born Elkin, who serves as Netanyahu’s regular interpreter at meetings on issues of great sensitivity with Russian President Vladimir Putin, sought Netanyahu’s endorsement before the deadline for candidates to move officially into the city they seek to lead by June 1. Eventually, he was forced to change his address from the West Bank Etzion settlement bloc to Jerusalem — without the leader’s benediction.

It was only last week on July 24, with the election campaign in full swing, that Netanyahu issued a lukewarm endorsement of Elkin. “As a member of the Knesset, as a minister, and particularly as the Jerusalem affairs and heritage minister, Minister Elkin has done so much for our capital and proved that it is close to his heart and very dear to him. I wish him great success.” Several days prior to this statement, Elkin explained Netanyahu’s reluctance in an interview with Russian-language media, citing heavy pressure on Netanyahu by Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who supports rival candidate Moshe Leon. One can also attribute Netanyahu’s belated support to Elkin’s insistence on running as an independent, a decision strongly opposed by the powerful Jerusalem Likud party branch, led by close Netanyahu associate and Knesset member David Amsalem. This group has already announced that Elkin’s campaign will not get a penny of the Likud’s election financing funds.

Another explanation might have to do with a poll conducted for Leon’s campaign by Smith Research several days prior to Netanyahu’s endorsement tweet. According to the results, only 16% of Jerusalemites want Elkin as their next mayor, whereas 25% prefer Leon. Even the secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch came out ahead of Elkin with 16% support. Some one-third of voters are still undecided, but the results indicate that Elkin is by no means a shoo-in. The impact of Netanyahu’s backing on Elkin’s chances, if at all, is unclear. The prime minister does not like to be associated with losers.

Although Elkin favors Jewish prayer on the Jerusalem Temple Mount and Jewish settlement in the heart of the city’s Muslim neighborhoods, he is a controversial figure in radical right circles. Last October, his fellow coalition Knesset members from the rightist HaBayit HaYehudi party joined forces with left-wing lawmakers to torpedo Elkin’s proposed legislation severing outlying Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem. Some 100,000-150,000 Palestinians, one-third to one-half of them officially recognized as Jerusalem residents, live in these neighborhoods that include the Shuafat refugee camp and Walaja. A separation fence built by Israel between the city and the West Bank has isolated these residents. Elkin proposed setting up a separate local council for these neighborhoods. The area would remain under the sovereignty of the Jewish people’s state, but responsibility for the residents’ welfare and municipal infrastructure would be handed over to the new local authority. The residents would no longer be considered Jerusalem residents but residents of the new local authority.

“Elkin understood that it’s hard to rule 320,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem by force,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with the Jerusalem human rights organization Ir Amim. “In order to get rid of them for the sake of improving the city’s demographic balance [between Jews and Arabs] and its economic situation, he is even willing to shrink the city’s jurisdiction,” he told Al-Monitor this week.

Tatarsky, who has been documenting Elkin’s activity in Jerusalem, fears that if the religious-nationalist politician wins, he will take advantage of the broad mayoral powers to complete the Jewish conquest of the entire city. A position paper issued by Ir Amim in response to Elkin’s proposed plan compares it to Israel’s unilateral 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

"In effect, the principle of a political division of the city — a fundamental principle of the two-state solution accepted by all center and center-left leaders who have participated in negotiations since the Oslo process — has been eliminated from all of these plans. If executed, such plans would fragment East Jerusalem and undermine the viability of a future solution." The paper argues that Elkin’s initiative, much like the Maale Adumim annexation plan that he also champions, aims to unilaterally force determinative territorial-political facts on Jerusalem in the guise of "municipal measures." In reality, it is stated, these measures undermine chances for a political resolution on the city, rupture the urban fabric and escalate the conflict in Jerusalem.

Elkin used to visit the Temple Mount regularly, issuing calls from there for others to join him and challenge the government’s ban on unrestricted Jewish prayer at the site. In a speech he delivered during a July 21 march by the rightist Women in Green organization, commemorating the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Elkin said a parade around Jerusalem's walled Old City was not enough. “For us to be able to cite the verse ‘Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old’ [Eicha Lamentations 5:21], the parade has to enter the Old City from every direction and flow toward the Temple Mount just as it did in those ancient times. … With God’s help, we will succeed in renewing our ancient times, and through this parade mount the same stones on which Jews stepped 2,000 years ago to the Temple Mount. This, too, will happen if we are determined.”

In 1963, one of Israel’s iconic poets, Yehuda Amichai, published a poem about governing Jerusalem. "It's sad to be / the mayor of Jerusalem. / It's terrible. / How can a human be the mayor of such a city? / What will he do with it? / He'll build and build and build." How will a man such as Elkin be the mayor of such a town? How sad it might turn out to be for the city — how terrible.

More from Akiva Eldar