Jerusalem elections could be ‘turning point’ for Palestinians

If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote for mayor in the first round, the top two would have a run-off November 13.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Local residents receive campaign material for candidate Ramadan Dabash, who is running for a seat in city hall of Jerusalem in the upcoming municipal election, on September 4. (Reuters)
Tight race. Local residents receive campaign material for candidate Ramadan Dabash, who is running for a seat in city hall of Jerusalem in the upcoming municipal election, on September 4. (Reuters)

LONDON - Residents of Jerusalem are to vote October 30 in municipal elections. No clear leader has emerged in a tight race that has seen support for different candidates split normally cohesive blocs.

“Jerusalem’s municipal elections are particularly competitive with four candidates who could conceivably win,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst for Israel-Palestine at Crisis Group.

If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote for mayor in the first round, the top two would have a run-off November 13. Current Mayor Nir Barkat is not competing for another term and has announced he will run for parliament as part of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The municipal elections mark the first time that Jerusalemites will be voting since US President Donald Trump announced the moving of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognised the city as Israel’s capital. Those decisions caused widespread uproar because Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel’s control over Jerusalem since the 1967 war has not been recognised by most of the international community.   

However, despite Jerusalem’s special international status, voters are most concerned about local issues, said Peggy Cidor, an Israeli journalist. This includes cleaning the streets of Jerusalem, building affordable housing for young families and improving public transportation.

There are notable differences to past campaigns. First, major political blocs are very divided. Notably, the local Likud chapter did not support Ze’ev Elkin, minister of Jerusalem Affairs in Netanyahu’s cabinet, leading Elkin, who is one of the front-runners, to form his own list.

Other conservative forces are also divided. Naftali Bennett’s and Ayelet Shaked’s Jewish Home party is split between two lists.

Among ultra-Orthodox voters, “tremendous change” is happening, said Cidor. The “big rabbis who decided everything” for the community do not exist anymore. Sociological change, such as growing numbers leaving the yeshivas and working or joining the army, leads to a political change in the ultra-Orthodox community, Cidor added. One orthodox candidate suggested he could form a coalition with an Arab list.

Another key difference to past campaigns is the importance of East Jerusalem. The eastern part of the city, home to most Palestinian residents, features more prominently than in past elections. This is “a result of the growing tension between Israel’s territorial and demographic objectives” in Jerusalem, said Zalzberg.

This marks the first time that a Palestinian candidate, Ramadan Dabash, stands a serious chance to gain a seat on the city council. Dabash heads Al-Quds Baladi (Jerusalem, My City) list. Another Palestinian candidate, Aziz Abu Sarah, and his party Al-Quds Lana (Our Jerusalem), withdrew from the race after concerns over his residency status were raised.

Palestinians announced electoral bids in Jerusalem previously but withdrew after significant pressure by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other Palestinians. The PA views participation in the elections as collaboration. A council of Palestinian muftis in July issued a fatwa stating that voting or running as candidates was “religiously forbidden,” arguing that such efforts would help Israel “Judaise” Jerusalem.

Dabash, who speaks fluent Hebrew, stands a chance to win at least a seat on the city council, said Cidor. His candidacy ties into wider trends in the city. Palestinians in East Jerusalem feel “completely abandoned” by the PA, Cidor said, adding that while they oppose the occupation, they are also more likely to apply for Israeli citizenship. “They want to live well,” Cidor said. “The Israelisation of Palestinians in Jerusalem is moving very fast on the ground.”

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the most immediate issues facing Palestinian residents in Jerusalem “are linked to underinvestments by the Israeli municipality in infrastructure and forced evictions and demolishing of Palestinian property.”

In the long term, Palestinians struggle to sustain a Palestinian national, political and cultural identity, said Lovatt. This is particularly the case, he added, as Palestinian schools need to adopt Israeli school curricula to access government funding.

What is more, a possible move by the Israeli government to suppress educational activities by the UNRWA, the agency created to help Palestinian refugees, “targets Palestinian national and cultural identity in Jerusalem.”

Zalzberg said Elkin “advocates excising from Jerusalem the Arab areas lying beyond the separation barrier and turning them into separate local authorities.” If he wins, this plan would gain “pragmatic credence and some electoral legitimacy,” likely boosting future constrictions of the city’s boundaries.

Cidor said Elkin was on a “personal mission for Netanyahu” to further the agenda to settle more Jews in East Jerusalem.

All in all, the municipal elections are “a turning point for Palestinians,” Cidor said. “Even one seat would change everything.”

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