JERUSALEM – Secular businessman Nir Barkat took a commanding lead early Wednesday against a powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish leader in Jerusalem's mayoral race, a contest that again exposed the deep divide between religious and secular Israelis.
Barkat declared the election showed "there is someone who will protect Jerusalem," while pledging to be "the mayor of everyone."
Israel Radio and newspaper Web sites said early Wednesday that with a third of the vote counted, Barkat had a 50-36 percent lead over Meir Porush. A telephone poll voters released just after balloting ended Tuesday evening predicted Barkat would win by a 50-42 percent margin.
Israelis voted around the country, picking mayors and city councils, but local issues and strong independent candidates overshadowed clashes between the major parties three months before national elections. In Jerusalem, the three largest parties failed to field candidates for mayor for the first time, leaving the race to representatives of two of the city's three distinctive and often squabbling groupings.
Barkat is a venture capitalist in his second try for the mayor's job. Porush, 53, has been an imposing figure on the ultra-Orthodox national political scene for years.
In the only reported incident of violence in Jerusalem, police broke up a demonstration by extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not recognize Israel. Police said they were trying to prevent people from voting.
The appearances of the two rivals in Jerusalem underlined their differences. Porush wears a long, black coat and black skullcap, as do the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The bareheaded, casually dressed Barkat reflects the embattled, dwindling secular Jewish residents of Jerusalem.
With a high birth rate and government financial support, ultra-Orthodox Jews are a growing proportion of Jerusalem's population, while many secular Jews are leaving the city because of their lack of control and rising municipal tax rates.
Uri Lupoliansky rode that trend in his victory in 2003, becoming the first ultra-Orthodox Jew to serve as Jerusalem's mayor, succeeding Ehud Olmert, now Israel's outgoing premier.
Left out is the third sector — Jerusalem's Palestinian residents. They make up a third of the city's population of 750,000 and have the right to vote after Israel annexed their section of the city in 1967. But most boycott instead of tacitly recognizing Israeli control by taking part in city elections. Palestinians claim their section of Jerusalem as the capital of the state they hope to create.
The mayor of Jerusalem has no official standing in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but one area of agreement between Porush and Barkat — and the other two candidates who are seen as having little chance of victory — is opposition to division of Jerusalem as part of a peace deal.
Instead, the two leading candidates favor building thousands more apartments for Israelis in the disputed part of the city, angering Palestinians.
More mundane issues face the incoming mayor. Financially strapped because a large proportion of its residents are poor, downtown Jerusalem has become shabby and dirty. In the past year it has also become a construction zone, with the building of a light rail tying up traffic and angering residents and merchants.
Barkat, 49, was emphasizing economic issues, aiming to persuade younger Israelis to stay in the city. Porush labeled his campaign "Jerusalem for everyone," but his focus was on services for the city's Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Adina Freimark, 20, a religious resident of Jerusalem, said she voted for Porush.
"I felt like I wanted someone who would care about Jerusalem as a city for the Jewish people," Freimark said. "There's a lot of talk about giving Jerusalem away and I want Jerusalem to stay in Jewish hands."
Pre-elections polls gave Barkat with a slight lead, but ultra-Orthodox residents traditionally vote in much higher percentages than others, possibly giving Porush an edge.
In Tel Aviv, two-term incumbent Ron Huldai was trying to fend off Dov Khenin, 50, a member of Israel's parliament from the Communist party Hadash. While Khenin is Jewish, his party is especially popular with Arab voters because of its calls for Palestinian and Arab rights.
But Khenin's strong environmental stand rather than his views on Arab-Jewish relations have won him popularity in Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial and cultural center, home to 390,000 people.
Huldai, 64, is a former general, fighter pilot and high school principal with a pro-business bent.
Early returns gave Huldai a solid lead.