JERUSALEM – Israelis were choosing their next mayors in dozens of locations across the country Tuesday, with the main focus on the largest city of Jerusalem.
The vote marks the second round of municipal elections in cities where no candidate secured at least 40 percent support in the Oct. 30 vote. The closest watched runoff race is in Jerusalem, Israel's proclaimed capital and a place of pilgrimage for billions around the world. While the city's mayor has little influence over Middle East politics and diplomacy, he presides over the day-to-day life in the hotbed of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has a strong symbolic presence both nationally and internationally.
The polls were taking place amid the most serious violence between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, since they fought a 2014 war. An election in one regional council in southern Israel near the Gaza border was postponed because of the incessant rocket fire and the violence could drive down voter turnout in other locations near Gaza.
Jerusalem is Israel's poorest city. Its diverse population is split nearly evenly between Palestinians Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of the Jewish residents — both secular and observant.
With the incumbent Nir Barkat stepping down to run for national office, a quartet of candidates squared off in an ugly campaign to replace him. The runoff features Moshe Lion, a longtime political fixture backed by much of the country's top leadership, facing off against Ofer Berkovitch, a young secular activist pushing a progressive agenda against religious hard-liners.
Lion, a former director general of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in the 1990s, enjoys the support of key ultra-Orthodox factions and their representatives in government, as well as that of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and powerful figures in the ruling Likud party. But he has little grassroots support of his own and failed to place even a single representative in the municipal council.
The 35-year-old Berkovitch heads a joint group of secular and modern-Orthodox Jews that makes up the largest block of the incoming council. He has also been buoyed by a historic split in the ultra-Orthodox electorate, which did not vote en masse in the first round. Many leading rabbis have refrained from endorsing a final candidate and some Hassidic Jews, whose own hopeful failed to advance to the runoff, have vowed to vote for the secular Berkovitch — previously a seemingly improbable prospect.
Avishai Cohen, who heads Berkovitch's ultra-Orthodox branch, says it's the result of vast changes in the community, with a younger generation more open to change and less reliant on the stringent all-encompassing edicts of rabbinical authorities. With many now joining the military and the modern workforce in growing numbers, he said it was natural they would also break out of their traditional voting patterns.
"There is a groundswell toward real leadership," Cohen said at a makeshift campaign office where he tried to convince fellow ultra-Orthodox to vote for his candidate. "I'm here to show that there is another kind of ultra-Orthodox Jew."
Few Palestinians vote since most consider participation as recognition of Israeli control over east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. So the result will likely come down to ultra-Orthodox turnout and how many flip to Berkovitch's side.
Either way, the winner is going to have to deal with deep divisions in the city after a hotly contested campaign.
"The number one challenge is of course the diversity of the city. Jerusalem has a very unique demographic structure, therefore every mayor who is elected will have to find a way to embrace the other side," said Lior Schillat, the director general of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, a non-partisan think-tank.
Elsewhere in Israel, runoffs will take place in Rishon Lezion, the country's fourth largest city, and several other major cities.
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