Israel’s municipalities go to the polls 2013

Municipal slugfest

10/17/2013 10:51   By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

‘What is this statue?” “Why is this slide like this?” “Why am I here?,” a man with ugly yellow shorts and a denim shirt complains as he walks around his town. And then the voice-over of the Interior Ministry advertisement running on local television: “It’s easy to complain… now you have a chance to vote.”

According to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, there are 689 mayoral candidates running in 191 elections.

More than 1,500 lists are competing for council seats. Roughly five million Israelis will have the right to vote in local elections, a slight uptick from 2008, when only 164 communities held elections with 660 mayoral candidates. In November 2008, 31 of the elections were undecided on the first round and more voting took place two weeks later. The same will occur this year for any municipalities where a mayoral candidate does not receive over 40 percent of the vote.

Israel’s current municipal election system dates back to 1978, when a double-ballot system was instituted so that voters chose both a mayoral candidate and a party list. This has produced a system where many mayors run under their own political parties, such as Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich’s Ruach Hadasha (New Wind) party, or Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s “Tel Aviv 1” party.

In many democracies local elections are seen as a barometer for national elections; elsewhere, however, local elections for councils, mayors or governors also coincide with national elections. Political Scientist Abraham Diskin wrote a paper on the 2008 elections for the Freidrich Ebert Stiftung, in which he argued that “the correlation between municipal and general elections in Israel is quite weak.” He noted that voter turnout in local elections tends to be much lower than in Knesset elections. In 2008, for example, only 32.6% of Tel Avivians went to the polls, and in Haifa, Netanya and Beersheba, the turnout was similar (35% and 32%, respectively). Diskin illustrates that in Arab communities the turnout issue is reversed, with some 70% of Nazarenes going to the polls, while “in many smaller Arab villages the rate was higher than 90%.” Only 56% of Arabs vote in national elections.

Not only are local elections not correlated clearly with the country’s views on its major political parties, but many major parties do not contest local elections zealously. For instance, Diskin notes that “political parties are often disguised as local non-partisan groups in local elections.” In other instances they don’t even contest the major elections; such was the case in 2008 when Nir Barkat, running for Jerusalem mayor, was not associated with the major parties.

The process of electing the mayors, with a separate vote, means that the party of the mayor doesn’t necessarily reflect the parties on the council. Arye Carmon of the Israel Democracy Institute has expressed opposition to this fragmentation, asserting, “the final result is actually the opposite of the original intention because the mayor must now contend with a fragmented city council, which often includes nearly as many parties as it does members.”

Other academics have proposed raising the threshold in municipal elections, which are decided by proportional representation, so that small parties will not get seats on the councils and thus make the councils less fragmented and the towns more governable. Liat Timor, second on the Meretz list running in Herzliya, notes that “in each municipality it is different. I don’t think people always see the correlation between the national and local party. The correlation is emphasized on the budget for the candidate. Once you run and you have the backing of the party, then you are sure where the money comes from. The independent candidates run without money and that is a huge difference. So besides that, people are very easy on the party, and the emphasis is on the candidate.”

In discussions with party insiders it becomes clear that many of those used to playing a role in Knesset or national party issues have little or no knowledge of what is taking place on the ground throughout their country. However, most show an interest in the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv elections. Some were even confused over the names of the parties competing in Tel Aviv. “‘Tel Aviv 1’… ‘The City for All of Us’… I don’t know, one of them is Huldai’s, right?” asked a confused voter.

One problem is lack of knowledge. Daniel Tauber, a Likud Central Committee member and an attorney, recalls being surprised to find that his own Likud branch office had primary voting for the city list in Jerusalem. “I saw a few people going in and putting ballots in a makeshift box,” he says.

Tauber sees the local branches of most parties as being very independent and influenced by various city leaders or vote contractors. For instance, in Jerusalem there are 8,700 Likud members, making it the largest branch, and it has a history of fractious infighting. Despite its large membership, the party only received 8,688 votes in Jerusalem’s last election – and this for a party calling itself “Likud List for Elisha Peleg,” who according to sources is close to Dudu Amsalem, a leading Likudnik in the city and the current Culture and Performing Arts Manager. This year Amsalem is number two on Moshe Lion’s list, and Peleg is fourth.

A party’s national strategy and its local branches are not always in sync. The final result is that there are three types of lists in local elections: Lists completely related to parties, those completely unrelated to national parties and hybrids that are not named after a party, exactly, but are funded by national parties closely allied to them and usually staffed by party honchos and activists. One insider notes, “every party will have lists and some partial lists.” For instance, Likud Beytenu is running 54 lists. Bayit Yehudi is running 70, the most municipal lists of any national party.

In some cases parties unite to form a list. This is what has taken place this year with Meretz and Labor running together in Jerusalem. Meretz, which has a powerful local office and council members and runs under the slogan “a city like you always wanted,” takes the three top slots on the list, with Labor taking the fourth. In Herzliya, Meretz is paired with an independent list where Meretz gets numbers three, four and six on the list. Likud-Beytenu, which joined forces before the previous Knesset election, still run independent lists in many localities.

PARTIES SUCH AS Bayit Yehudi field a large corps of candidates, hoping to change the municipal landscape and create a brand, building on their success. Jonny Cline, an immigrant from the UK, is one of them. He founded Toremet, a charity that helps funnel philanthropy to needy causes. A lifelong activist, he is running on the number three spot on the Bayit Yehudi list in Modi’in.

Bayit Yehudi was “interested in opening up to new populations and communities. They wanted to relate to new voter populations and wanted to bring on [board] someone who was recognized in the city. They wanted to make the municipality accessible to olim,” he says.

He estimates the city is about 10% immigrants, primarily Anglo and French. He wants to foster “employment and entrepreneurship… to create a community for all the people in Modi’in and those who do e-commuting or have small businesses.” Modi’in, he says, is a young city, so newcomers have a way to get involved in politics. However, one of the greatest challenges facing candidates in municipal elections is apathy. “That, for me, is an oxymoron for olim; the whole act of aliya is an activist gesture…. Once we are in Israel, the real Zionism is interest in your municipality.”

Chaim Bibas, the mayor since 2008, is projected to win, and Cline doesn’t think there are divisive issues or large splits among the lists in the city. Yet he thinks that this election is different because Anglo immigrants are getting more involved; including in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Tel Aviv and Zichron Ya’akov. “This is the maturation of Israel,” he says. “Israeli political society is opening itself up to different cultures that have come to Israel.”

Yesh Atid would like to build on its success from the January election but is perceived in the media to be suffering from image problems due to the unpopularity of Yair Lapid’s economic policies. A spokeswoman for the party notes that they are running in 18 mayoral races and 45 council contests. They argue that across the races, “the number one thing in this election is education, actually. Young families care about education. That is the number one issue…. Our strategy is that we see this as a true opportunity to put people who proved themselves and take the change that we are leading nationally to the local places.”

They are not involved in the capital’s municipal election, choosing to support the Hitorerut list. In the other elections they highlight the women they have supported. “Like in our Knesset faction,” said the spokeswoman, “women play a prominent role. Forty percent of our candidates are women… it is part of our goal and strategy. We think women can make a change in every list, we want women to take a part in the national and local leadership.”

In Lod, for instance, two women educators are running for the council; while in Sderot, Devorah Biton, a former nurse and lawyer, is running to unseat David Buskila. Yesh Atid is also keeping up its young image, running a list split 50/50 with a youth party in Haifa. They are also supporting other minorities; in Kiryat Malachi, 27-year-old Awaka Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, is running for mayor. If elected, he will be the first Ethiopian-Israeli mayor.

Similarly, Yisrael Beytenu sees advantage in having power at the municipal level, to remind voters that they are not being swallowed up by Likud. But many national parties must be aware that Kadima invested almost NIS 30 million in contesting local elections, hoping to leave its imprint on politics in 2008. It had limited success, helping Dov Tzur take Rishon Lezion, but overall leaving the party in debt. Municipalities obviously come with some financial perks for a party – deputy mayors can receive over half a million shekels a year in salary.

THE CREATION of the hybrid lists and the fact that few mayors are clearly identified with national parties is due to the fact that many towns are not homogenous and so a mayor from one party, such as Shas, would find it difficult to appeal to more than their own voters. Therefore, a mayor such as Ruvik Danilovich opts to run under the name “New Wind” rather than for an individual party in a city where Likud-Beytenu received 38% of the vote in January 2013, Shas 13% and Bayit Yehudi 12%. Danilovich has nothing to gain by running on a Likud slate, since Likud performs dismally in Beersheba council elections, receiving only 4.27%, and Yisrael Beytenu 8%, in 2008.

Yehiel Lasri faces a similar issue in Ashdod. Born in Morocco, he came to Israel in 1963, first serving on the Ashdod city council in the 1990s. In 2003, after serving in the Knesset for Likud, he returned. Running for mayor under the “Ashdod Betnufa” party, he won 55% of the vote. However, his party won only 10.9% of the votes for the council.

This is a common phenomenon across Israel, where popular mayors have few coattails. Journalist Liat Timor explains: “What matters to us is that they back the mayor [incumbent candidate] Yonatan Yasur, head of Herzliya Shelanu [list]. So actually, what I am saying is that it happens to be that in the local election, the emphasis is on the candidate, and not on the party. Even a party considered ‘right’ or ‘left’ can attract people from the center if the candidate is attractive enough. So for instance, some people that support [Avidgor] Liberman, they say they are not afraid of the Meretz party. They might trust Meretz in honesty or human rights, taking care of the weak of the municipality.”

This isn’t always the case. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) cities tend to be dominated by single parties on the council and mayor’s office. Bnei Brak’s Ya’akov Asher ran unopposed in 2008 under a deal between his Degel Hatorah faction and United Torah Judaism’s supporters. The allied parties took all 25 seats on the council as well. Reports of a similar deal between Shas and UTJ for 2013 in Rehasim will mean popular mayor Dan Cohen may step aside for Yitzhak Reich. In the haredi town of Elad overlooking the coastal plain, Yitzhak Shalom Eden snatched up 12 council seats and the mayor’s office. There are some voices against the haredi system of choosing lists without primaries and making deals. They don’t have women on them, and activists had attempted to ban the parties in the January election and again in this one, where Ruth Kolian, formerly a petitioner against animal abuse, has argued at the High Court that the parties exclude women. This is all the more relevant in an election year when parties are trying to bring more women into politics.

There are very popular mayors in Israel, such as Netanya’s Miriam Fierberg. Bat Yam’s Shlomo Lahiani received 86% of the vote in 2008. But popularity seems to come with a cost for some. Lahiani, who is credited with modernizing his city, was indicted for corruption, and NGO Ometz has called for him to step down. Kiryat Malachi mayor Moti Malka won 82% of the vote last time around but was arrested in 2012 and accused of rape. He was convicted of sexual harassment, fraud and breach of trust in June.

Other corruption scandals erupted in Ramat Gan with mayor Zvi Bar, Shimon Gapso of Nazareth and Yitzhak Rochberger of Ramat Hasharon, along with the deputy mayor of Ra’anana.

Other popular mayors are in for a tough fight to keep their seats. Ra’anana’s Nahum Hofree won his seat in 2008 with an impressive 71% of the vote. Now Ze’ev Bielski is back in town. Bielski was born in Jerusalem and served as a Jewish Agency emissary to South Africa, which likely helped him in Ra’anana, where there are large numbers of former South Africans. He gained a myth-like status, winning 80% of the vote before leaving in 2005 to run the Jewish Agency. Serving briefly as an MK for Kadima, he has returned to unseat former educator Hofree. According to a post on an Anglo resident’s website, some are angry at Bielski for leaving; either way, the race pits two popular mayors against each other. Another candidate in the city is lawyer Eitan Gluck, who is campaigning partly on lowering the NIS 320 million municipal debt. Two MKs are running for local office: Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz in Tel Aviv and Balad’s Haneen Zoabi in Nazareth.

Returning to local politics, as Bielski and Lasri did, is not atypical for politicians who place too low on a national list to get into the Knesset. Lia Shemtov, an MK for Yisrael Beytenu until 2013, once served as deputy mayor of Nazareth Ilit. Yet in the previous election she was 49th on the Likud-Beytenu list and lost her seat.

Now she is back home running for mayor. Carmel Shama was harmed by the Likud-Beytenu alliance, being placed at number 32 when the party got 31 mandates.

He is running for mayor of Ramat Gan, where he was once in charge of the party’s youth branch. Zion Pinyan, another refugee from Likud’s Knesset faction, is running for mayor of Tiberias, where he was deputy mayor for 20 years. The record is clear: Many Knesset members with former connections to local councils return to them when things go wrong in Jerusalem.

It also goes the other way around. As one Yisrael Beytenu supporter notes, “if you can bring a large local support base with you or show that you have power in a certain city, that can help you nationally.”

When popular mayors retire or begin to look weak, upstarts emerge, as happened to Beersheba’s Yaakov Turner in 2008 when his own deputy unseated him.

In Hadera, Yesh Atid is trying to unseat Likud’s Chaim Avital by running Tzvika Gendelman. In Herzliya, Timor notes, “the main issue is that because [former mayor and current MK] Yael [German] was a very strong mayor, a lot of candidates see this as their opportunity to try to become mayor. So there are nine candidates.” In Ariel two candidates vie to replace city founder Ron Nachman, who died in January.

MAYORAL RACES take into account society’s divisions along ethnic and religious lines. Despite Arabs making up more than a third of the electorate in Jerusalem, only 2% of them vote, and none serve on the city council. In a short but nasty dispute, several dozen Arabs voted in the Meretz primaries in Jerusalem, but the subsequent results were overruled. A spokesman for Meretz wrote to The Daily Beast, “When evidence was presented that people voted [who were] not legally registered to Meretz, the Meretz national leadership had to intervene.” Tel Aviv has two Arab members on the city council, Meretz’s Ahmed Mashharawi, and Sami Abu Shehadeh of Jaffa. The Jaffa faction polled 2.67% in 2008. In the North, both Carmiel and Nazareth Illit have acrimonious political campaigns devoted to combating the “Arab threat” to their cities.

In Carmiel it was revealed that fear of a mosque being built is an issue used to drive votes, and in Nazareth Illit there are divisions among Arabs who recently moved to the predominantly Jewish town. In neither place do Arabs or joint lists with Arabs seem capable of making it onto the council.

Similarly, Shas, the religious Sephardi party, polls well in cities with large numbers of Mizrahi voters, such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Beit She’an, Beit Shemesh (where Moshe Abutbul won in 2008) and Petah Tikva. In Tel Aviv, Aharon Meduel is running for mayor with the Ir Lekulanu (A City for Everyone) party. Matan Kaminer, an activist, noted, “running a Mizrahi candidate will be a clear sign to the residents of south Tel Aviv that they are a central priority.” And in Jerusalem, Shas supporters have urged voters to turn out for Moshe Lion because he is Mizrahi.

Family connections also play a role. Jackie Levy, the popular Likud mayor of Beit She’an, is the son of David Levy, the powerful Likud politician who had inspired many with his rise from obscurity in the northern town. Yitzhak Ravitz, who heads Beitar Illit’s Degel Hatorah (Flag of Torah) faction, is the son of late politician Avraham Ravitz. Yael Dayan, daughter of general Moshe Dayan, serves as chair of Tel Tel Aviv: Battle for the bubble • HAYLEY MUNGUIA Tel Aviv has long been recognized as one of the world’s most LGBT-friendly cities. As such, one might say the next logical step in its advancement of the movement would be to elect the country’s first gay mayor. Earlier this year, that seemed like a distinct possibility, when MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) announced that he would challenge Ron Huldai, the city’s mayor since 1998. However, more recent polling suggests that Huldai’s reign over the city will continue, with a predicted 53 percent of the vote in his favor compared to Horowitz’s 26%.

And then there’s Aharon Maduel of the Ir Lekulanu Party, who has largely been characterized in this election by his status as a Sephardi Jew. In an endorsement for Maduel over Horowitz as the best choice for Tel Aviv’s Left, Yitzhak Laor wrote for Haaretz, “Something can also be said about what the left has not succeeded in carrying out for decades: The hegemony of the Left, even as a symbol, does not need to be Ashkenazi.”

But Laor’s use of the phrase “the hegemony of the Left” is particularly interesting, since the lack of hegemony may prove to be its downfall, at least in terms of the mayoral race. Despite the significance of his run in terms of the prospects for more diverse political representation, his candidacy splits the Left’s vote. Although party affiliation is generally much less important on a municipal level than on a national level (Huldai, though endorsed by Labor, has no official party), that doesn’t negate the tendency of general leanings to dominate political races, and Tel Aviv’s mayoral race is no different.

At the end of the day, the issues most important to Tel Aviv’s voters largely align with those of a left-leaning platform. Social issues are dominant.

The degradation of south Tel Aviv, particularly around the central bus station, is a large point of contention, and the influx of illegal migrants there calls into question the place of non-Jewish immigrants in Tel Avivian society. The growing gap between the elite and middle classes and the lack of overall social mobility – the centerpiece of the recent social protest movement – are obviously significant issues for voters. But other issues, including the ease of immersion into Israeli society for olim – which hits close to home for Tel Aviv’s 15,000-plus English-speaking voters – as well as parking, public transportation and the state of the city’s parks – are high-priority as well.

On issues like these, Horowitz and Maduel have perspectives that differ enough to divide the Left, leaving Huldai’s majority perfectly intact.

Despite the security of Huldai’s position, many city council seats are still up for grabs. This will be where the real competition within Tel Aviv’s municipal elections lies. From Jonathan Javor, a London native whose platform focuses on easing olim’s integration, to Mutsim Ali, an illegal African immigrant whose primary focus is to find venues of cooperation between Israel and non-Jewish immigrants and refugees, to Hatufim star Ishai Golan, whose concerns include Tel Aviv’s lack of sufficient artist support. According to Golan, “it is important for me that I raise my children in a city that recognizes all of its citizens and that holds as central the principle of equality.” Aviv’s city council. Dan Lahat, son of legendary mayor Shlomo “Cheech” Lahat (served 1974-1993), formerly a leader of the Greens, is running on a Yesh Atid-supported slate in Tel Aviv.

In 2011, social protests erupted and many politicians tried to transform them into municipal results. Ir Lekulanu in Tel Aviv and Hitorerut in Jerusalem benefited. Yesh Atid benefited in January 2013, but it appears steam may be running out. One activist argues, “There are maybe those who voted Yesh Atid and they are now disappointed, and it may be much harder for them to vote on a municipal level.” Timor argues that in Herzliya the major issue is making it a better place for residents from different economic levels: “One thing that pushed me was the youth revolution of social protests. The new word that entered the public vocabulary was solidarity. …Herzliya is the city with the two extremes, very rich and very poor.”

Some of the issues dominating local politics seem either trite or of greater importance than a mayor can handle. In Jerusalem, Nir Barkat has been accused in ads running on YouTube of being a leftist who secretly wants to divide the city. The reality is that Barkat has no final say over negotiations with the Palestinians regarding Jerusalem. In Efrat, an issue people talk about is a municipal swimming pool. David, a resident who moved to Efrat from Toronto, argues that “we are a wealthy community. Who is going to build it? We pay high taxes but we don’t have facilities of a much smaller town. Building is a big issue and so is infrastructure.”

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