In a rather unpleasant mini-TV face-off Monday, hours before polls open nationwide for municipal elections, the rival candidates for the Jerusalem mayoralty, incumbent Nir Barkat and challenger Moshe Lion, each proclaimed they have the upper hand. But polls have consistently shown Barkat heading for reelection, by anything from 7% to 20%, and Lion suffered eve-of-vote blows Monday when sections of the ultra-Orthodox leadership indicated their support for him had wavered.
While official Likud candidate Lion was officially endorsed by the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, he has not received backing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and one important Haredi faction has insisted on fielding an independent candidate, Haim Epstein — who could cost Lion thousands of votes. On Monday morning, a letter was placed on prominent Haredi Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach’s car, threatening him with death if Epstein, who is running on behalf of Auerbach’s Bnei Torah faction, did not withdraw from the race. “Shut down your party, otherwise you’ll forfeit your life,” read the note.
On Monday evening, the Gur Hassidic dynasty, whose followers constitute one of the largest ultra-Orthodox communities in the city, withdrew their support for Lion’s candidacy. The Belz community was expected to follow suit, further improving Barkat’s chances of winning the race. Lion shrugged off the blows, insisting that “at most, 5,000 votes” were involved, and that he would still triumph.
In its Monday newscast, Channel 2 brought the two candidates together for an interview, with Barkat appearing in a suit and tie and Lion flaunting a black-and-yellow of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer scarf. A picture released later showed Lion standing alongside MK Avigdor Liberman — one of his chief backers — in the crowd at the game.
Barkat looked confident in the interview and said he was certain of his reelection. “The people of Jerusalem have made up their minds. Most residents of Jerusalem understand what transpired during my term, what I had to work with and where the city is today,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll see… Everyone understands what the alternative is – the shady deal.”
Barkat was referring to the alliance wrought between Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and Liberman, head of the Russian-speaking secularists in Yisrael Beytenu. The two are united behind Lion, the Likud-Beytenu’s official candidate, in an effort to unseat Barkat, a right-wing but politically independent high-tech multimillionaire seen to represent the city’s slowly dwindling secular, tax-paying economic base.
“We know we’re going to win tomorrow,” Barkat said, looking squarely at the camera.
Lion was no less confident, though his choice of attire betrayed a last-ditch effort to win a few more votes. “It’s time Jerusalem had [a mayor] who can bring about a real revolution,” Lion said, explaining that he had 15 years of “action for the sake of Jerusalem, albeit quiet and understated,” behind him to back up his candidacy. “It’s a real mission for me. I hope that the truth will come to light tomorrow and that I win,” he added.
Asked why Netanyahu, the Likud party chairman, hasn’t endorsed him, Lion told Channel 2 that he had “nothing against” the prime minister, for whom he had worked in the past as PMO director general. “We have a fantastic relationship, overall,” Lion said. “To tell you the truth, I’m not at all concerned with it at the moment.”
Asked by the interviewer if he had anything positive to say about his rival, Lion was less magnanimous. “After three months of lies and slander by his campaign managers, I don’t even have one good thing to say about him,” he said.
Asked the same question, Barkat said he wished Lion well in his future moves — indicating his conviction that Lion, who only recently relocated to Jerusalem from his home town of Givatayim, would not be taking over at City Hall.
At the end of the interview, Lion interjected with one of the staple cheers of Jerusalem soccer fans: “Yalla Beitar!” Later Monday, Lion posted on his Facebook page that, “In soccer, as in life, the heart and the soul always prevail.”
The Beitar fan base has a long history of anti-Arab sentiment, and, until earlier this year, the team was the only Israeli soccer team never to have signed an Arab or Muslim player. The team played against arch-rival Hapoel Tel Aviv on Monday — and won 1-0 with an 84th minute goal.
Some fans at Teddy Stadium describing a crowd incensed even more than usual – this time, not by Muslim players on the field, but by flyers accusing Barkat of left-wing sentiment. “That’s what Liberman and Lion would like Jerusalemites to think,” said one fan, apparently not a Lion supporter. “That’s how they ‘unite’ Jerusalem.