JERUSALEM // The holy city could hardly have drawn a more colourful line-up of contenders for its top post. A white-bearded rabbi, a secular hi-tech entrepreneur, a Russian-Jewish billionaire with a shady past and the long-haired, pro-marijuana owner of a bar are all vying to become Jerusalem's mayor in tomorrow's municipal election. The vote comes at a critical time for the city, which is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel's most populated city has also become its poorest, with one out of every three families - mostly in Arab East Jerusalem - living below the poverty line. The number of people fleeing Jerusalem amid a lack of jobs and affordable housing - mainly young, educated and secular Jews - outnumber those moving in. Finally, the disputed city is riddled with religious and political tensions, especially between religious and secular Jews, and between Jews and Arabs - the latter of whom are becoming increasingly bitter at facing discrimination in such areas as housing, health care and education.
Conspicuously absent among the contenders - all of them Jewish - is a Palestinian candidate. After all, Jerusalem is home to 260,000 Palestinians living in the part of Jerusalem that was taken over by Israel during the 1967 war and later annexed in a move not recognised internationally. Most boycott the vote because they see it as legitimising Israel's sovereignty over the entire city, whose eastern part Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
In the last municipal election, in 2003, only five per cent of Arab Jerusalemites voted. But even those wishing to vote are facing pressure not to. Last week Rafiq Husseini, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, warned that any East Jerusalem Palestinian who does not boycott the municipal election will be punished. Furthermore, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, Jerusalem's top Muslim cleric, has declared that the voting is haram. But Palestinians' refusal to vote has hurt them as well, leaving them with little sway in City Hall. Only about 10 per cent of the municipal budget is dedicated to Jerusalem's Palestinians, even though they account for one third of the population.
The Palestinian boycott left the candidates campaigning for Jewish support. A poll published last week in Yediot Yerushalayim, a Jerusalem weekly newspaper, showed Nir Barkat, a former company commander in the army paratroopers' unit who later made his fortune investing in technology, garnering 48 per cent of the vote. Trailing him as the only other candidate with a realistic winning chance was Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and father of 12, with 36 per cent.
Mr Porush, 58, a veteran parliamentary member who helped push for West Bank settlement expansion while serving as deputy housing minister, may benefit from the disciplined voting of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox. In the 2003 election, 64 per cent of eligible ultra-Orthodox voters cast their ballots, compared with 42 per cent of other Jews living in Jerusalem. Far behind is Moscow-born Arcadi Gaydamak, perhaps the most colourful candidate, with four per cent of support. The billionaire is wanted in France on charges of selling weapons to Angola, speaks little Hebrew and owns a Jerusalem football team with a notoriously anti-Arab fan base. Finally, the bar owner, Dan Biron of the Green Leaf Party, which advocates the legalisation of marijuana, garners one per cent, the poll showed.
The front runners for the five-year mayoral term, Mr Barkat and Mr Porush, have attracted the most media attention for making fiery statements that appeal to right-leaning Jewish voters. They supported strengthening Israel's sovereignty over the entire city - including Muslim holy sites - and bidding to reverse a demographic trend that has resulted in Jerusalem becoming more Arab and less Jewish. Indeed, Jerusalem's Jewish population dropped to 66 per cent of the total from 74 per cent four decades ago.
"It scares us that either one of them could inflame the relatively calm Israeli-Arab relations that we have today," said Pepe Alalu, leader of the left-wing Meretz faction in the Jerusalem city council. Meretz has refused to endorse any of the candidates. Mr Barkat has made no secret of his hardline rightist views. The 49-year-old broke with Israel's ruling Kadima Party last year because he opposed the inclusion of Jerusalem's future status - and its possible division into Israeli and Palestinian capitals - in renewed talks with the Palestinians.
Mr Barkat supports Jewish settlement in Jerusalem's Palestinian neighbourhoods, advocates advancing the Jewish account of the city's history and has said that if elected, he would intervene in managing the religious site, which Muslims call Haram al Sharif and Jews call the Temple Mount. The site, the third-holiest in Islam, is today controlled by the Islamic waqf, a trust. Some experts said Mr Barkat lost many left-wing supporters with his recent statements. Still, his appeal remains his secular identity, which feeds into the backlash of non-devout Jerusalemites against what they view as the increasing ultra-Orthodox control over Jerusalem.
In 2003, Mr Barkat's run for mayor was lost to Uri Lupolianski, who became the city's first ultra-Orthodox chief. Since then, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox character has become more apparent. Ultra-Orthodox Jews occupy 14 of the city council's 31 seats, the most they have ever held and proportionately higher than their 20-per-cent share of Jerusalem's population. Some of the ultra-Orthodox, who typically segregate themselves and adhere to a stringent, anti-modern interpretation of Judaism, are notorious for throwing stones on passing cars in their neighbourhoods on Saturdays - since driving is prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath - or spitting on women they perceive as dressed immodestly.
Observers said the secular-religious divide will drive voters tomorrow. With a white beard that flows far down his chest, Mr Porush realises he has an ultra-Orthodox look and this could scare off secular voters, but he has tried softening that image by portraying himself as a loveable, hand-waving cartoon character on his campaign posters instead of using a real photo. "The beard has become a symbol of the gap between Porush and the clean-shaven Barkat - it shows the real story of the Jerusalem elections," wrote Shahar Ilan, a columnist in Haaretz, a left-wing daily newspaper.
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