Over 5 million Israelis have the right to vote in the municipal elections today. National politics are not as directly reflected in municipal polls as they were in the past – when Likud and Labor used those as platform for securing their parties’ political machines (plus, there just isn’t much of a competition in the big cities) – but you can always learn about some of the deeper trends from them. Here are a few things to watch:
1. Jerusalem: Major Nir Barkat is favorite against Moshe Leon. Leon’s candidacy is backed by a political deal between Shas’ Aryeh Deri and Avigdor Lieberman. The idea was to rally the ultra-Orthodox vote behind him as well as to swing some of the national religious his way. But the campaign never gained real momentum; Leon was endorsed by the Likud but not backed by Netanyahu, and the fragile secular voters joined Barkat, who remains a favorite.
Like previous elections, the fight in Jerusalem is between the Israeli right and the ultra-Orthodox bloc. It is interesting to note that the secular camp, which became important during those elections due to its ability to determine the winner, rallied behind the pro-settlement Barkat, who backed the Jewish effort to colonize the Palestinian neighborhoods Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Labor publicly endorsed Barkat, and Meretz withdrew its symbolic candidacy of longtime council member Pepe Alalo. In the choice between solidarity with the Palestinians and the battle against the ultra-Orthodox, the secular camp clearly prefers to join the national religious and the right, which is rather disappointing. In all fairness, Leon ran on an extreme-right platform and promised to destroy Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem after the elections, so some claim that Barkat is actually the lesser of two evils.
One could also say that the secular-national religious pact in Jerusalem, which began in the 2008 elections, foresaw the Bennett-Lapid alliance in national politics, and is part of a larger trend.
Unlike in the national elections, East Jerusalem Palestinians can vote for the municipality. They chose not to, as such a vote would be a de facto recognition of the annexation of East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages and towns by Israel.
2. Tel Aviv: The 2008 race, which saw a surprising challenge to mayor Ron Huldai from far left Dov Khenin, is considered among the early signs of the 2011 social protest (housing issues were the driving factors behind both). This time around, Huldai, Tel Aviv’s mayor for the last 15 years, seems to be sailing to his fourth term, despite lack of popularity in the city’s center and south. Meretz candidate Nitzan Horowitz failed to gain much momentum, and the interesting candidacy of Aharon Maduel, a former Likud member who is leading a grassroots movement and is backed by Hadash and some of the hard-left, remains rather marginal.
Many small fractions are expected to split the vote in the center of the city, while the big bloc of voters in the north remains united behind the pro-business Huldai. If the 2008 elections were an early indication of the social protest, the 2013 ones reflect its current state – fragmented, co-opted and in search of a new way.
3. Nazereth: Balad’s Hanin Zoabi, who was the favorite target of right-wing politicians in recent years (they even tried to ban her from participating in the elections, with only the High Court interfering in her favor), is challenging Ramez Jraissi, who has led the most important Palestinian city inside the Green Line since 1994. If elected, Zoabi will become the first woman to lead a Palestinian city in Israel.
4. Nazereth Illit: The mayor of mostly Jewish Nazereth Ilit, Shimon Gapso, ran a racist campaign which promised to stop Palestinian immigration into the city. Although he is facing corruption charges, Gapso is allowed to run, despite being recently removed from his post by the High Court.
5. Party performance: Bennett’s Jewish Home party is polling very well nationally. The settlers party is now looking to increase its national appeal through a strong performance in the elections. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid ran a more modest campaign, with some of candidates even distancing themselves from Lapid, whose popularity is seeing some sort of a meltdown recently. Furthermore, Shas‘ strength in the post-Ovadia Yosef era will be tested for the first time.