Jerusalem Votes In a Secular Mayor

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Bernat Armangue / AP

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Nir Barkat gives the thumbs up after casting his vote.

In a mayoral race widely seen as a struggle for the soul of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, a secular, high-tech multi-millionaire and ex-paratrooper, defeated Meir Porush, candidate of the city's large, ultra-orthodox Jewish community.

With more than 90% of the vote tallied, Barkat won with 50.7% of the vote to Porush's 42.05%. A Jewish Russian billionaire and former arms dealer, Arcady Gyadamak, failed in his bid to turn out the city's Arabs, who traditionally boycott the elections. He placed a distant third in the polls with 3.51%, while a fourth candidate, a bar owner who campaigned to legalize marijuana, collected one half percent of the vote.

Winner Barkat, 49, is eager to close the rift between Jerusalem's secular community and the black-hatted religious population, which widened during the fierce campaign. "Victory belongs to all those who love and cherish this special and amazing city of ours, the Jewish people's eternal capital," he said. "It belongs to the Right and the Left, it belongs to the religious and the secular."

During the campaign, ultra-orthodox candidate Porush seemed a sure winner. Traditionally, the haredim vote in a solid block, obedient to their rabbis. But Porush, a snowy-bearded, autocratic "prince" of a political-religious dynasty, had angered many Hassidic Ger rabbis, known for wearing black, long-tailed robes and boxy fur hats even during the sweltering summer heat. For generations, the Porush family and the Ger have been rivals inside the cloistered Haredi community.

In the ultra-religious neighborhoods, which seem like a step back into 19th-century Eastern Europe, many Hassidic Jews either broke with tradition and voted for a secular candidate or left the mayoral ballot blank. Police say several brawls broke out between Porush supporters and jeering Hassidic youths.

Most Israeli newspapers today touted Barkat as the savior of secular Jerusalem. The city's outgoing mayor is also ultra-orthodox, and many non-religious Jerusalemites chafed at the growing number of restrictions imposed on Sabbath activities. During campaigning, Porush said little about how he would sanctify Jerusalem, but many Israelis envisioned the city becoming a ghost town on the Sabbath, with all restaurants shut and cars banned from many neighborhoods. They also feared that Porush would have pushed for the segregation of men and women on buses and in municipal offices. Shalom Yerushalmi, a columnist for the daily Maariv, wrote, "I know many people who returned the suitcases to the closets, after promising to pack up and leave the city ... Now everyone is waiting for a miracle."

But the new mayor may have trouble delivering such a secular 'miracle'. Taken together, ultra-orthodox parties will still be the largest block in Jerusalem's city council. In order to win over the large religious Zionist vote, Barkat, a former city councilman, swung from the center to the far right, campaigning on promises to build more Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem. U.S. administrations and the international community have repeatedly said that these settlements are an obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Many of East Jerusalem's 250,000 Arabs are entitled to vote, but few did. Most heeded warnings from Palestinian leaders in Ramallah who said that voting in municipal elections is tantamount to recognizing Israel's "illegal" claim on East Jerusalem. Militants tried to set fire to ballot boxes in one neighborhood, and throughout East Jerusalem, only 2% of Arabs, mainly city workers and their families, turned out to vote. "The election boycott was a success," crowed one activist, who supports Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.

But the sad reality is that without any representation on the city council, Jerusalem's tax-paying Arab residents are given short shrift in the allotment of schools, clinics and such basic services as mail delivery and garbage pick-up. Jerusalem's new pragmatic mayor Barkat made his huge fortune mastering the intricacies of cyberspace. He may find that virtual world a cinch compared to Jerusalem's seething complexities.
with reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem

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