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Israel votes in municipal elections

Jerusalem's mayoral race highlights the country's polarisation despite pledges by the candidates to keep the city united.

Israeli Mayoral candidate, Rabbi Meir Porush, is seen in a car during mayoral elections in Jerusalem, on Nov 11 2008.
Israeli Mayoral candidate, Rabbi Meir Porush, is seen in a car during mayoral elections in Jerusalem, on Nov 11 2008.

Israelis were voting in municipal elections today with the Jerusalem mayoral race highlighting the country's polarisation despite pledges by the candidates to keep the city united. The polls are also being seen as a test of strength ahead of parliamentary elections on February 10, with the leading parties engaged in a battle for prestige and control over more than 150 local councils. A total of 660 candidates were running for mayor or municipal council chairs across the country, including in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the annexed Golan Heights. In Jerusalem, the race pits a secular hi-tech entrepreneur against an ultra-Orthodox MP, with a Russian-Israeli billionaire tycoon running a distant third and all proclaiming the credo that the city is Israel's "eternal and undivided capital." In Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, electoral pamphlets littered the ground as voters lined up to cast their ballots. In occupied east Jerusalem numerous businesses went on strike in an electoral boycott and to protest Sunday's expulsion of a Palestinian family forced from their home of 52 years following a lengthy court battle with Jewish settlers. Palestinians have boycotted the elections since Israel captured Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community. Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state. Nir Barkat, representing the city's declining number of secular Jews, said he quit the prime minister Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima party when "people began mentioning the possibility of giving up some parts of the capital which must remain unified." His main rival Rabbi Meir Porush has also declared that "any concessions over Jerusalem are out of the question." While the two share the same views on the status of the city, their different backgrounds highlight the growing rift between religious and secular Jews. "Jerusalem's story tomorrow will be the story of Israel in the near future," the tYediot Aharonot newspaper said in an editorial. "Will we be able to join hands to handle the challenges facing the state of Israel, or will we continue with the polarisation and rifts and internal division of one side at the expense of the other?" the daily asked. Mr Barkat, Mr Porush and controversial Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaydamak, have all promised to tackle the deep inequalities between the Jewish and the Palestinian areas. Israel's controversial West Bank barrier runs through the heart of several of east Jerusalem's most densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods, cutting off tens of thousands of Palestinians from local services. Candidates have also focused on the rapid decline in the number of young Israelis living in the city. The drop in the secular population, the relatively small number of companies based in Jerusalem and a rapidly growing, generally poor ultra-Orthodox population are threatening to leave the city in dire financial straits. The leading candidates have promised legislation to attract companies, especially from the country's large computer industry, and young families to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem election could head to a second round, with some pollsters candidates would find it difficult to garner the 40 per cent needed to win outright today. * AFP