Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Jerusalem mayor-elect Nir Barkat

Secular Candidate Barkat Trumps Orthodox Candidate Porush in Jerusalem Mayoral Race

November 12, 2008 01:35 PM
by Christopher Coats
Following a tense campaign, shunned by Israel’s largest political parties, software entrepreneur Nir Barkat emerged victorious in Jerusalem’s mayoral race on Tuesday.

A Question of Paths for the Beleaguered City

Competing in a field of four candidates, Barkat’s only real competition came from ultra-orthodox rabbi Meir Porush, a former member of the Knesset who represented the capital city’s most conservative wing.

Citing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a role model, Barkat pledged to work toward creating “an international metropolis,” and to be mayor of all Jerusalemites.

Leaving a controversial Russian-born billionaire and a former journalist running on a pro-cannabis platform with just 4 percent, Barkat and Rabbi Porush faced off in what some saw as the latest installment in an ongoing fight for the future of Jerusalem.

Home to more than 700,000, the city has been wracked by poverty in recent years and has remained a focal point of regionwide attempts at peace talks. A historical and religious center for Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the city continues to represent a center of tension and disputed claims.

Namely, the issue of whether the city should be divided between Israelis and Palestinians has been ever-present in regional as well as American politics. The eastern half of the city was seized by Israeli forces in 1967, and its authority remains a sticking point for furthering peace talks and regional agreements.

This tension has recently led to an exodus of secular Jerusalemites to other large cities, such as Tel Aviv. Viewed by some as a denial of the deeply conservative Porush’s localized view of governance, Barkat’s victory led the daily newspaper to declare the election a chance for Jerusalem to resurrect itself after years of neglect.

“The capital city, which became the poorest and most neglected city in Israel, needs an earthquake that will leave no stone unturned,” the paper wrote following Barkat’s win. “The tens of thousands of people who abandoned the city have to come back and rebuild everything anew.”

Observers look to the entrepreneur’s experience in the high tech economy to help the city attract investment from Israel’s burgeoning technology economy and possibly attract younger families to settle or resettle in the city.

However, emerging with more than 40 percent of the city’s vote, Porush’s performance highlights a lingering rift between the city’s conservative and secular blocs.

Some election observers suggest that this rift helped push Barkat further toward the right, creating relationships with more orthodox factions of the city to gain support and leading to the pledge to build more Jewish settlements in the disputed eastern side of the city.

However, The Jerusalem Post points to surges in secular voter turnout as well as the arrival of Jerusalemites now living in other cities as the key to Barkat’s success.

Opinion & Analysis: Porush’s view too narrow

For his part, Porush’s increasingly localized take on politics may have cost him support both within and outside of the country’s religious community.

Speaking just days before the election, Jerusalem religious leader Shlomo Aviner accused Porush of neglecting the needs of the national religious community in favor of the needs of his immediate community—an approach he found unacceptable in a city with such national importance.

 “What is good for Jerusalem must be taken into account and not what is good for me or for my cousin,” Aviner told Ynetnews.

Key Figure: Arkady Gaydamak

Although he emerged with just 3.6 percent of the final vote, Russian-born businessman and soccer club owner Arkady Gaydamak was one of the most widely discussed and internationally known candidates.

Funneling large amounts of his $8 billion fortune into the race, the outsider was viewed by some as nothing more than a political joke. After his support began to collapse, he was left with the unenviable task of trying to make inroads into the city’s Arab communities. Although they make up nearly 30 percent of the city’s population, Jerusalem’s Arab community has largely boycotted municipal elections since the seizure of the city’s eastern half in 1967.

This year, the Palestinian Authority issued a strict order not to take part in the elections, making Gaydamak’s plans to create inroads all but impossible.

A widely known but controversial figure, Gaydamak has been accused of making his fortune by funneling arms to Angola in the 1980s—a charge for which the French have sought his extradition from Israel.

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