Tel Aviv, Jerusalem mayors keep posts; right-wing populists register successes

The municipal elections in Israel yesterday brought no major surprises.

In the most interesting political fight this year, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat beat Atty. Moshe Lion, whose candidacy was backed by Shas’s Aryeh Deri and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. The defeat has implications for the political futures of both politicians: Deri is weaker without the support of the late Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef and a split in Shas seems more probable than ever. Lieberman’s fortune has been in decline for a long time. His fate will be determined when the verdict in his trail is handed down, but even if he is acquitted, his public standing has greatly diminished.

The secular public in Jerusalem rallied behind Mayor Barkat as the lesser of two evils (Lion was clearly more right wing, to the extent that that’s possible). As I wrote yesterday, the elections showed that the Israeli center is comfortable enough – or indifferent enough to the Palestinian issue – to join forces with the settlers, both on a municipal and national level. This should serve as (another) wake-up call for those who think that most Israelis are mobilized against the settlements.

The results in Jerusalem also showed the fragmentation and the internal rivalries in what used to be a coherent and united Orthodox bloc.

The vote for the city council continued a national trend from the Knesset elections: there are more secular representatives but there are also more extreme-right members, including the hard-right, racist activist Aryeh King, who had one of the most Islamophobic, Arab-hating campaigns I can remember since the days of Meir Kahane. This guy is now an elected official.

Right-wing populism also won the day in other places, with Nazereth Illit Mayor Shimon Gafsou registering a landslide victory despite, and perhaps thanks to, a scare campaign against Palestinians who bought houses in his town and corruption allegations against him. He might still finish this term in prison or at least at home, but it won’t be because of the voters.

In Tel Aviv, low turnout didn’t keep Mayor Ron Huldai from winning a little over 50 percent of the vote and entering his fourth term in office. Huldai face criticism over the city’s handling of issues related to asylum seekers the south of the city and the lack of affordable housing but voters were convinced that neither issues ie really his fault. Meretz is now the largest faction in the Tel Aviv municipal council, reflecting the steady strengthening of the party’s brand nationally. Meretz is now polling 12 Knesset seats, double their figure in last year’s election and four times (!) the result of 2009.

An interesting item from Petah Tikva, one of the largest suburbs of Tel Aviv: a Kabbalah-affiliated list called Beyachad (“together”) is now the largest faction in the city council. They promise to take over the education department, “and change it beyond recognition,” as their platform states. Get those red ribbons ready, parents!

Balad’s MK Hanin Zoabi failed to win over Nazereth, the most important Palestinian town within the 1967 borders. Like Meretz’s MK Nitzan Horowitz, who lost in Tel Aviv, she will return to the Knesset, much to the dismay of the Right.

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