Israel Pulse

Likud minister takes gamble in bid for Jerusalem mayor

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Article Summary
Minister Ze’ev Elkin showed political courage when he decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem, even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored him.

Israel is scheduled to hold municipal elections Oct. 30. Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat has announced that he will not run again for the position but will instead try for a spot on the Likud Knesset list in the next general elections. And so the Jerusalem mayoral race has taken up a new dimension. The Likud Party has yet to announce who will be its candidate.

Minister Ze’ev Elkin, after concluding that he was not going to be receiving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's blessings, at least not at this early stage, announced May 31 that he had decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem anyway. The senior Likud official explained his decision by saying that he believes the position presents a challenge on a nationwide scale and that he is, therefore “willing to give up his position as a senior minister and Cabinet member for it.”

Elkin, who serves as minister of Jerusalem affairs and minister of environmental protection, tried to get the official support of Netanyahu for weeks. He had hoped that Netanyahu would declare him the Likud’s candidate in the municipal elections, but the prime minister took his time on it. Netanyahu’s decision to ignore, or perhaps even abuse, Elkin was the result of a testy relationship between the two men, based on the growing sense in the prime minister’s household that Elkin is not completely loyal to him. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman started to reach an understanding that they would both support the candidacy of Moshe Leon, a confidante of the Yisrael Beitenu chairman, who ran in the last election in 2013 and was defeated. Now he has decided to run again. Leon, who served as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term (1997-1999), was considered a leading candidate for the job until Elkin threw his hat into the ring.

In many ways, Elkin was taking a gamble when he decided not to wait for Netanyahu’s endorsement. Instead, he staked out his place in the race, putting Netanyahu in a difficult position. Almost all senior members of the Likud, including its senior ministers, declared they would support Elkin and wished him luck. Now it is up to Netanyahu to decide if he will remain on the fence and avoid supporting a senior Likud minister who also has a good chance of being elected. To Elkin’s credit, it should be noted that his decision to act independently showed not only courage but also the ability to make tough decisions in less than ideal circumstances, even if the prime minister is ignoring him. His announcement reshuffled the deck, making the race for mayor all the more intriguing, with the minister of defense and the prime minister both directly involved.

In an interview that Elkin gave to the Haaretz newspaper May 17, he presented an orderly approach to what he considers to be the role of Jerusalem’s mayor. Elkin described the city as the “laboratory of the future” for the State of Israel, explaining that one-third of the population is Arab (in East Jerusalem), one-third is ultra-Orthodox and one-third is everyone else (secular). This, he said, will be the demographic composition of the State of Israel as a whole in the next generation. That is why he thinks that for the next few years, Jerusalem will serve as a model for life in Israel with those demographic divisions.

According to recent polls conducted in Jerusalem, Elkin and Leon are the leading candidates for mayor. It is a tight race. They must maneuver between the ultra-Orthodox, religious and secular residents based on the assumption that it is impossible to win with the support of just one of those groups.

The first challenge they faced came June 3 when Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of Yahadut HaTorah made ultra-Orthodox support for any candidate conditional on a commitment to shut down the entertainment compound in the Mahane Yehuda market. This popular dining area with all sorts of restaurants has come to represent secularism and sanity in the city. Litzman, on the other hand, considers it to be “a place of debauchery and licentiousness.” Elkin and Leon, both of whom are affiliated with the religious-national stream, were not intimidated by his remarks. They and the other candidates announced that the compound will remain open even after the election.

Litzman may have lost this battle, but the fact that he took advantage of the election campaign to extort the candidates on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox community should be seen as a sign of what is to come. The ultra-Orthodox are already demanding that entertainment centers in Jerusalem be closed on the Sabbath.

The position of mayor of Jerusalem has always been attractive. In many ways, it is the equivalent of being a senior minister in the government. This is not just because of the enormous budget or the challenges inherent in running such a large and complex city, but also because of the semi-statesmanlike position held by whoever leads the capital of the State of Israel. For the past few years, as Netanyahu and the Likud’s ministers — Elkin among them — bandied about the “Jerusalem” brand as a symbol of right-wing patriotism (with the relocation of the US Embassy adding a new level of centrality to it), the role of mayor has become even more attractive. The position gained an aura of government power ever since Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister. His previous position was, of course, mayor of Jerusalem.

While the race to win this coveted position and become mayor of one of the most famous cities in the world gets more interesting and tense by the minute, whoever is elected to lead Jerusalem for the next five years also faces enormous challenges.

Jerusalem is Israel’s largest, most densely populated city. It has 900,000 residents, many of them poor. It is ranked first among the major cities for negative migration due to the number of young people abandoning it (as of 2016), and it has a huge deficit. Jerusalem is also a constant source of security issues and inter-religious conflicts, not to mention squabbling between its ultra-Orthodox and secular residents.

In that sense, Elkin and Leon, both of them identified with the right, have a distinct advantage over the other candidates because of their connections to the government. This should make it easier for them to get budgets for the city, promote major projects and jumpstart the municipal economy.

They are both considered experienced politicians, too. Leon has served as a member of the Jerusalem City Council for the last few years and has gained intimate experience with the local political scene. While Elkin lacks that experience, as minister for Jerusalem affairs, he brings with him a comprehensive, macro view of this complicated city, with all its many problems. In terms of his political abilities, Elkin is one of the most adept and sophisticated legislators in the Likud Party, two traits that will likely help him build the alliances and coalitions he needs even before the election. All that remains to be seen is whether his gamble will turn out to be a brilliant political move.

Found in: Election campaigns

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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