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Voters in Jerusalem choose secular over ultra-Orthodox

Nir Barkat focused on jobs and transparency in public spending in running his successful campaign for mayor.

November 12, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Boudreaux is a Times staff writer.

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem's voters Tuesday ended five years of ultra-Orthodox rabbinical leadership at City Hall, choosing as mayor a secular businessman who has promised to reverse the city's slide into poverty and the exodus of its Jewish population.

Israel Radio said near-complete returns gave self-made millionaire Nir Barkat an unbeatable lead over Rabbi Meir Porush and two other candidates. Porush conceded defeat after an unofficial count from 600 of the 707 polling stations gave him 38% of the vote, compared with Barkat's 51%.

Russian-born tycoon Arkady Gaydamak won 7%, according to unofficial results. Dan Biron, a bar owner with a shoestring campaign budget, finished last with less than 1%. The winner needed at least 40% of the vote to avoid a runoff.

The election was part of a fierce struggle between secular and religious forces over Jerusalem's Jewish identity. Most Arabs, who make up about one-third of the city's population of 760,000, boycotted the exercise to protest Israel's claim of sovereignty over the entire city.

Barkat, 49, pledged today in a predawn victory speech to be "the mayor of everyone" -- religious and secular, Arabs and Jews.

"There is room in Jerusalem for everyone," he declared to jubilant supporters at his campaign headquarters. "If there's not room for everyone, then there's not room for anyone."

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who follow a strict dress code and dedicate themselves to the study of holy texts, make up about one-fifth of the city's population. Their strong turnout in the 2003 election produced an administration led by Mayor Uri Lupolianski; he and four of his five deputy mayors are ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

Their administration alienated secular Jews and many who are modern Orthodox. Those Jews chafed under what they called an imposition of the ruling rabbis' conservative social values and official favoritism toward ultra-Orthodox communities in the funding of schools, synagogues and other facilities.

Barkat, who was soundly beaten in the last election, took a strong opposition role on the city council, faulting the rabbis for what he called a poor climate for business investment and a lack of transparency in public spending.

He mobilized 3,000 young volunteers this time to get more voters to the polls.

A factional split among Hassidic Jews, meanwhile, turned part of the traditionally monolithic ultra-Orthodox community against the 53-year-old Porush, who ran in Lupolianski's stead under a power-sharing pact between their political parties.

The challenger's appeal to the less conservative had stronger resonance this time. In a telling incident that became known as the "Taliban affair," city officials inaugurating an urban rail bridge in June insisted that a group of schoolgirls about to perform a dance at the ceremony don ski caps and cloaks so as not to appear "promiscuous."

"People are abandoning the city because they feel stifled and cannot find good jobs," said Amnon Jonas, 42, a software technician who left Jerusalem a year ago but returned to campaign for Barkat in the hope of moving back here.

Barkat appealed to voters across the spectrum by pledging to bring tourism and high-tech ventures to Jerusalem and create thousands of new jobs.

He stirred controversy by calling for the construction in East Jerusalem of thousands of homes for Jews. That stance cost him support among secular liberals but gained votes among modern Orthodox Jews, settler groups and others on the right.

Such a project is certain to aggravate tensions with Arab residents, who dominate East Jerusalem and want to make that part of the city the capital of a separate Palestinian state.

As mayor, Barkat will have little influence on Israeli housing policy in Jerusalem or any Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations over the city's status. But his opposition to the Palestinian demand to divide Jerusalem could affect the level of tension in the city.

Voters elsewhere in Israel chose mayors and legislative councils in 198 municipalities. With the election of a new Israeli government three months away, Tuesday's voting was a test of strength among its three biggest parties, but independent candidacies and local issues muddled the picture.

In Tel Aviv, two-term incumbent Mayor Ron Huldai, a retired general and fighter pilot credited with the city's real estate boom, won reelection over Dov Khenin, an Israeli parliament member running as an environmentalist.

Mayor Yaakov Terner lost his reelection bid in Beersheba to his onetime protege, Deputy Mayor Ruvik Danilowitz, after a bitter campaign that ended with the anonymous posting of phony notices on walls throughout the desert city reporting the 73-year-old Terner's death.


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