Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rose early on Tuesday morning to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections. From there, he rushed to Ben Gurion Airport. Before taking off for high-level diplomatic meetings in Rome, one correspondent asked him who he had voted for. “I voted for Jerusalem,” he answered cryptically, before taking his seat on the plane.
Mr Netanyahu had good reason to be silent. His support had already been promised in advance to incumbent mayor Nir Barkat, with whom he has had a close working relationship in recent years. Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, his erstwhile partner in leadership of the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list, convinced the local Jerusalem Likud branch to endorse his protégé, Moshe Leon, as their candidate for mayor. The fact that the Prime Minister was forced to remain silent throughout the campaign, rather than opening a public rift with Mr Lieberman and his fractious party members, is a testament to his current weakness within Likud.
Mr Lieberman, meanwhile, was free to fling all of his considerable political weight behind the Leon campaign, joined by his old ally, Shas leader Arye Deri, who promised to secure the votes of Jerusalem’s large Charedi community.
The two most experienced political operators in Israel ran an aggressive campaign but even they could not overcome the widening cracks within the strictly-Orthodox sector, with a number of leading rabbis refusing to endorse Mr Leon. Mr Barkat’s 2008 majority was almost halved, but he won his second term largely thanks to Charedi disunity and the refusal of many Jerusalemites to go along with the Lieberman-Deri tie-up. In his Rome hotel room, the Prime Minister could heave a sigh of relief.
With the verdict on his breach-of-trust trial due in two weeks, Mr Lieberman has little time or political capital left for causing more trouble for the Prime Minister, while Mr Deri, who suffered a second humiliating defeat in the Charedi town of Elad, will now have to tend to his uneasy party following the death of spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Mr Deri had mused only last week that a victory in Jerusalem would lead to the destruction of the coalition.
Mayor Barkat’s survival is good news not only for coalition stability but will also ensure fewer surprise announcements of building projects in East Jerusalem that could derail the diplomatic process. While Barkat professes to right-wing views, he has quietly collaborated with the Prime Minister on reining in new building projects during a diplomatically sensitive period.
Beyond Jerusalem, local elections around the country yielded mixed fortunes for the national parties. In the great majority of towns and local councils, the incumbent mayors and council heads were re-elected. In Tel Aviv, where only 21 per cent of voters bothered to turn out, Mayor Ron Huldai won a fourth term, seeing off a spirited challenge from Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz. It was not all bad news, however, for the left-wing party that has been surging in the national polls: Meretz is now the largest party on Tel Aviv city council, where Labour were totally wiped out and Likud is down to a single member.
Another party that fared badly was Yesh Atid, which received the most votes in Tel Aviv in the national elections earlier this year but won only one council seat this week. The party also performed poorly in other cities. The results were probably due to mounting criticism of leader Yair Lapid’s conduct as finance minister.
On the right, Yisrael Beiteinu’s loss of council seats across the board highlighted the growing weakness of its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, while Habayit Hayehudi succeeded in gaining seats around the country.
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett claimed on Wednesday that no other party had as many council members around the country. The claim is unverifiable because most mayors and council leaders are officially independent candidates.
One city where Habayit Hayehudi failed, however, was Beit Shemesh, a major battleground for secular and religious groups in recent years.
Mr Bennett endorsed a secular candidate, Eli Cohen, who ran on behalf of all the non-Charedi parties in an attempt to dislodge controversial Shas mayor, Moshe Abutbul. Not only was Mr Abutbul re-elected but the Charedim now have almost complete control of the city council.