Mayoral race that all Israel is watching

Campaigners for Orthodox candidate Meir Porush set up mocking cut-outs of Barkat (Photo: AP)

Campaigners for Orthodox candidate Meir Porush set up mocking cut-outs of Barkat (Photo: AP)

Local elections in Israel are normally just that — local.

While the national parties have representatives at the municipal level, many of the country’s mayors and council leaders are political independents, leading lists consisting of candidates from across the spectrum. Campaigns are generally fought out over issues closer to home, not the left-right divide.

This year’s mayoral elections in Jerusalem, however, due to take place in just under two months, have become a major test of the power of one of Israel’s most prominent politicians, Avigdor Lieberman.

The former foreign minister, barred from returning to cabinet until his court case is over, is turning the race into his personal project.

Mr Lieberman is not running himself, but he has hand-picked a candidate to challenge Mayor Nir Barkat, who is vying for a second term.

That candidate, Moshe Leon, is the head of one of the largest accountancy firms in Israel and lives in Tel Aviv. He has been a loyalist of Mr Lieberman since the 1990s when Mr Leon replaced him as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term.

The motives behind the Leon campaign are unclear. Mr Lieberman himself has said that he is simply trying to provide better services to Jerusalem residents “who pay rates as if they were in Manhattan and receive services like in Damascus”.

Mr Barkat claims that Mr Lieberman’s challenge derives from his refusal to appoint the former foreign minister’s cronies to key positions in City Hall. But there are deeper machinations at work.

Jerusalem’s political apparatus is the second-largest in the country and Mr Lieberman, exiled from the cabinet, would like to control it behind the scenes.

Mr Leon’s candidacy has split Likud, with the local Jerusalem branch supporting the challenger and many of the party’s leaders on the national level favouring the incumbent. That includes the prime minister, who has so far refrained from endorsing any of the candidates. Mr Netanyahu’s reticence on this matter could indicate the first major cracks in the Likud-Beiteinu alliance.

Mr Barkat ran twice in the past — losing the first and winning the second — against Charedim and was seen as the representative of secular Jerusalemites worried about the strictly-Orthodox taking over their neighbourhoods.

This time around, there does not seem to be a prominent Charedi in the running and Mr Lieberman has been meeting senior rabbis, ensuring they back Mr Leon. If Mr Leon gets the Charedi vote, and Mr Barkat remains the secular champion, the balance could rest in the hands of the national-religious, who are observant but not Charedi. In the last elections, most of them voted Barkat, but Mr Leon himself belongs to their community and will try to play on these connections.

Last updated: 10:45am, August 30 2013