According to results released early Wednesday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat won a second term in a surprisingly close election, edging a rightist challenger backed by nationalist and ultra-Orthodox power brokers.
The result, the most closely watched in municipal elections across Israel on Tuesday, averted a further swing to the right in the leadership of this contested city, whose future is one of the core issues in recently resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
With a low voter turnout threatening Barkat’s base of secular support, a split among ultra-Orthodox voters thwarted a bid by their leaders to regain control of city hall. Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up a third of Jerusalem’s population.
Barkat was challenged by Moshe Leon, a politically connected accountant from a suburb near Tel Aviv who’d recently moved to Jerusalem to run in the election. Leon was drafted as a candidate by Avigdor Lieberman, a former foreign minister who’s the leader of an ultra-nationalist party that represents Russian-speaking immigrants, and by Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party of Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin.
Analysts said Leon’s candidacy was an attempt to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who worked well with Barkat – on the national stage. Deri asserted during the campaign that a Leon victory could propel ultra-Orthodox parties into Netanyahu’s governing coalition, replacing his secular allies.
The final results showed Barkat winning by 12,000 votes, taking 51 percent of the vote to Leon’s 45. Turnout was 36 percent, 7 percentage points less than in the previous election, in 2008.
Barkat, who in the earlier election had ridden a secular backlash against his ultra-Orthodox predecessor, acknowledged that this time the battle had been tough.
“These elections were not easy at all,” he said in a victory speech to supporters. “This was one of the most complicated and difficult races that I, you and all of us have experienced and seen. But tonight the residents of Jerusalem gave us a mandate to lead the city with the same vision and same path for another five years.”
Barkat’s task will be complicated by ultra-Orthodox advances in the city council, where they gained two more representatives in the 31-member body. An extreme rightist party that campaigned to “Judaize Jerusalem” also won two seats. Liberal groups won eight.
Commentators said the low voter turnout and Barkat’s narrower-than-expected margin of victory reflected a significant level of dissatisfaction with his performance, particularly in poorer neighborhoods.
“Nir Barkat won, but he was issued a warning by the Jerusalem public,” Nir Hasson, Jerusalem affairs correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz, wrote in a tweet on the paper’s website. “An anonymous candidate came close to beating him.”
Lieberman called Leon’s showing at the polls “a tremendous achievement” and said challenging Barkat was “the duty of the whole national camp.”
Palestinian residents, who make up a third of Jerusalem’s population, boycotted the election, as they have for years, viewing the Israeli municipality as part of a foreign occupation of their neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Suffering from a lack of city services and budget allocations, Palestinian voters were further alienated by Barkat’s ties with Jewish settlers who’ve moved into East Jerusalem – part of his political alliance with religious nationalist groups.
In his remarks early Wednesday, Barkat sounded a note of inclusiveness, despite the ethnic, religious and cultural fault lines that run through his city.
“Remember, this is the city of Jerusalem, which has not been divided into tribes, which has a place for everyone,” he said. “We will need everyone’s help.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had the wrong turnout margin between the 2008 and 2013 elections. This year, it was 7 percentage points lower than in 2008.