Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat seeks re-election today in a race whose two main candidates reject any shared sovereignty over the holy city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Almost all of the city’s Arab residents will sit it out.
Barkat, 54, a technology millionaire seeking his second term as an independent candidate, says Israel should make no territorial concessions in Jerusalem and Jews should feel free to settle in largely Arab neighborhoods in the city’s eastern sector. Palestinians claim that area, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state, while the current Israeli government says the entire city must remain the country’s capital.
“Always leave an open door for a deal,” Barkat said in a conversation with journalists last week, referring to current peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. “But a bad deal is worse than no deal, so anything that has to do with Jerusalem should be off the table.”
Despite such rhetoric, his main opponent Moshe Lion accuses Barkat of a “concessionist attitude” that has allowed a “creeping disengagement from Jerusalem.” In an Oct. 21 Jerusalem Post opinion piece, Lion, running on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu list, charged the mayor with insufficient zeal in demolishing unauthorized Arab construction, meeting with radical Islamic elements, and allowing a city council member from the dovish Meretz party, which favors sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians, to handle the municipal portfolio for the eastern sector.
Jerusalem’s mayor doesn’t have a say in negotiations over the city’s future, which are handled through the prime minister’s office. The mayor can, however, affect the fragile relations between Arab and Jew in the city, especially in administering contested Old City shrines that are flashpoints for violence.
Israel conquered east Jerusalem from Jordan and annexed it shortly after in a move the international community rejects. Israeli construction in east Jerusalem has created friction between the Netanyahu government and the U.S., European Union and United Nations.
Most of Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who comprise about one-third of the city’s population of 780,000, hold local residency status that allows them to vote in municipal elections, though for political reasons no more than a few thousand have exercised that right.
“Jerusalem’s Palestinians decided on a strategy to not vote in local elections in order to send a clear message to the world that we are living under occupation and don’t recognize the annexation of the city,” said Ahmad Sub Laban, a field researcher for Ir Amim, an organization that monitors actions it says jeopardize negotiations on Jerusalem’s final status.
That leaves Jerusalem’s Jewish population, divided roughly between the city’s ultra-Orthodox sector and a mix of secular and modern Orthodox Jews, as the electoral battleground for Barkat and Lion. A Jerusalem Post/Smith survey on Oct. 18 had Barkat leading Lion by 47 percent to 41 percent, with a 3.5 percentage-point margin of error. Earlier polls gave Barkat a 30 percentage-point lead.
Barkat campaigned successfully in 2008 by arguing that previous mayors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski had catered too much to the ultra-Orthodox, hurting the city’s cultural life and damaging its economic prospects. He says his administration has pursued a more balanced approach that has boosted tourism and employment, increased the number of cultural events and reversed the flight of non-ultra-Orthodox Jews from the city.
Lion, a religiously observant accountant and former government official who moved to Jerusalem from suburban Tel Aviv just weeks before the election, says Barkat has ignored economically weaker neighborhoods and done too little to halt rising housing costs or improve schools.
Lion has two powerful patrons: Yisrael Beitenu party chief and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a leader of Israel’s Soviet-immigrant community; and Aryeh Deri, chairman of the Shas party, which draws its support from ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Barkat says Lion’s candidacy was manufactured only after he spurned Liberman’s request to appoint unqualified candidates to municipal positions, a charge the Yisrael Beitenu leader denies.
Conspicuously missing from Lion’s backers is Netanyahu, who chose Lion to run his bureau during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and whose Likud party ran a joint slate with Yisrael Beitenu in the January national election.
“As long as I am prime minister, Jerusalem will remain our united capital, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Netanyahu said today, in comments broadcast on Israel Radio as he arrived at a polling station to cast his vote in the city’s election. He wouldn’t say which candidate received his vote.
“Since Barkat basically shares and supports Netanyahu’s positions on the status of Jerusalem, the motivation to make a change isn’t there,” said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It is also likely the prime minister is not that comfortable with Lion’s ties to Liberman and Deri, with whom he has complicated relations.”