Skip to main content

Jerusalem mayoral race heating up

After Elkin missed out on the ultra-Orthodox deal, it’s not clear that Netanyahu would go out of his way to support him – he’ll certainly prefer his personal interests with the ultra-Orthodox. If residents of East Jerusalem would vote, they would decide who the next mayor would be.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Minister of Jerusalem and Environmental Protection Zeev Elkin (L) and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman (R) attend a special cabinet meeting marking Jerusalem Day, at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Pool - RC1396C81E50

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indeed released a video endorsing the candidacy of Minister Ze'ev Elkin in the election for mayor of Jerusalem, it’s doubtful that aside from this obligatory endorsement he would go out of his way to support him.

It’s not that the impassioned Oct. 30 election doesn't interest the prime minister — quite the opposite. But it’s not at all clear that his interests and those of Elkin match up. Alongside Elkin, who is considered a strong candidate, stands Moshe Leon, a close associate of chairman of Yisrael Beitenu party Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and chairman of Shas Party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. It seems that the two of them joined forces to get Leon elected and managed to garner him the support, more precious than gold, of the two large groups of ultra-Orthodox: Shas and Degel HaTorah. The Sept. 20 report of this deal hit Elkin with surprise and reshuffled the cards. Afterward, a small skirmish between Elkin and Liberman broke out in the media: The former accused the defense minister of deal-making and ignoring the interests of city residents, and the latter didn’t hold back and told Elkin to stop whining.

The question is now, would Netanyahu throw all his weight and prestige in for Elkin, since the once-warm ties between them have cooled in the past year? It’s not certain. What is certain is that the political arena in Jerusalem is boiling hot and it has ramifications for national politics, even for power relations between the ultra-Orthodox factions in the governing coalition regarding the ultra-Orthodox Enlistment Law crisis. So far, the ultra-Orthodox and Liberman have confronted each other on the law, but joining forces to promote Leon’s candidacy could signal that the relationship is changing. In any case, Netanyahu would certainly first consider his own interests with the ultra-Orthodox, especially since he himself faces an election year — even if Elkin pays the price.

While Leon, a well-known businessman close to right-wing parties, is supported by Liberman and Deri — two experienced political foxes — Elkin has Netanyahu, publicly at least, and Chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The significance of this support is mainly declarative — a show of force Elkin can present (he’s also supported by many Likud ministers). In actuality, he knows that the sector to decide the election is the ultra-Orthodox. Here he is at a huge disadvantage compared to Leon.

The hit Elkin suffered this week was rough. Without the ultra-Orthodox voice, you can’t win an election in Jerusalem. Former Prime Minister and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert won the mayoral race with the ultra-Orthodox in 2003; after him was an ultra-Orthodox mayor, the first and only until now, Uri Lupolianski; and last, still in office, is Nir Barkat, a secular local high-tech tycoon who won in 2008 and 2013 with the help of a deal with the ultra-Orthodox.

Although there are another six weeks until the election for mayor of Jerusalem, the picture of this political battle is clear as to the profile of the person who would lead this complicated city for the next five years. Mayor Barkat intends to run for Knesset with the Likud in the next elections. And so, after 10 years led by a secular mayor, his replacement will most likely be a religious right-winger.

Elkin, 47 — a religious man who previously lived in a settlement — aligns with the Likud hard-right faction. Leon, 56 — currently serving on the Jerusalem city council — is a religious right-winger and more moderate than Elkin (Leon is identified with the national-religious stream).

Two additional candidates are the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox Yossi Deitch, 50, who thought erroneously that all the ultra-Orthodox would back him (but continues to run); and Ofer Berkovich, 35, a secular candidate and member of the city council who hopes to benefit should the ultra-Orthodox vote split, though he knows that without the ultra-Orthodox his chances of winning are slim.

On the eve of the Jewish New Year Sept. 9, the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research published a demographic profile of the city. There were no surprises there. Since the 1990s, the city has become more ultra-Orthodox; still, the numbers are interesting — especially the latent power of Jerusalem Arabs.

According to the statistics, Jerusalem is the largest city in Israel by population and has 882,700 residents. Of that number, 62% are Jewish (536,600), about 36% are Muslims (322,600) and about 2% are Christian. The ultra-Orthodox population is about 34% of the Jewish population at around 182,000 residents.

While the ultra-Orthodox know to use their power to act as central players in local politics in Jerusalem, which as mentioned above also impacts national politics, the Arabs of East Jerusalem purposely sit out of this arena. Since the 1967 Six-Day War and the unification of the city, East Jerusalem Arabs have boycotted the municipal election, arguing that if they participate in the election they would de facto be accepting the occupation. In the 2013 election, less than 2% participated in the election.

By law, residents of East Jerusalem (most of them not Israeli citizens) have the right to vote in municipal elections but not in elections to the Knesset. While an East Jerusalem resident cannot be elected mayor, one can be elected to the city council.

What’s new in this election cycle is that there are two lists of Arabs running for city council. The first is Al-Quds Lana (Jerusalem is ours), headed by Aziz Abu Sarah, 37, a resident of East Jerusalem who declared that he would petition the High Court to change the law to enable him to run for mayor. Abu Sarah proclaims his support for the Palestinians, but his reception has been met by violence. At the press conference where he announced his candidacy on Sept. 6, eggs were thrown at him from the audience. This was to be expected. In the past, candidates from Arab East Jerusalem have been threatened and gave up on participating in the election.

Heading the second list, called Jerusalem for Jerusalemites, is Ramadan Dabash, 51, a resident of Tzur Bahar. This list focuses only on providing services for residents of East Jerusalem.

Despite a seeming awakening among East Jerusalem Arabs, in the upcoming election, the decisive majority of the 182,000 residents with the right to vote will stay home. Considering that Barkat was elected mayor in 2013 with 110,000 votes, if the Arabs of East Jerusalem would vote, they could determine who would be the next mayor.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial