Jerusalem's Israeli mayor re-elected as Palestinians boycott vote

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Jerusalem's Israeli mayor Nir Barkat talks to the press after casting his vote on October 22, 2013 in Jerusalem during municipal elections. (Photo: AFP - Menahem Kahana)

Published Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Israeli mayor of Jerusalem won re-election on Wednesday in a race that dealt a political blow to his challenger's main backers, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Palestinians, who form about a third of Jerusalem's 750,000 people, boycotted the mayoral race in protest at Israel's control of the eastern part of the city captured in a 1967 war.

Lieberman, a legislator whose far-right Yisrael Beitenu party is allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, is embroiled in a corruption case, with a court verdict next month likely to determine whether he returns to the cabinet.

Lieberman’s mayoral candidate, Moshe Lion, failed to unseat incumbent Nir Barkat.

In a snub to Lieberman, Netanyahu did not endorse Lion – and flew to Italy on Tuesday for talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry after casting his ballot in Jerusalem.

Lion, a former aide to Netanyahu, took 45 percent of the vote to Barakat's 51 percent.

For Shas, the contest was a chance to demonstrate its electoral power and show it could induce a large bloc of ultra-Orthodox voters to rally behind Lion, its favored candidate.

Once a maker and breaker of Israeli coalition governments, Shas was not invited to join the one Netanyahu formed after a national election in January, handicapping its ability to channel public resources to its educational and social welfare institutions.

Barkat, 54, called the election "one of the most complicated and difficult races" he had seen, but thanked voters he said "gave us a mandate to lead the city with the same vision for the next five years."

A former high-tech tycoon, Barkat was first elected mayor in 2008 when he defeated an ultra-Orthodox leader in a contest that turned mostly on the city's sharp religious-secular divide between Israelis. This time he won votes from secular and religious Israelis alike.

Though seen as a political independent, Barkat championed Jewish settlement building in east Jerusalem in his first term, supporting Netanyahu's policies.

In Eastern Jerusalem, polling stations were almost completely deserted, as Palestinians boycotted the vote en masse to protest the continued discrimination against them.

Fahid, a polling station worker, says that of the roughly 2,000 people eligible to vote in the neighborhood, only six or seven people showed up to cast their ballots.

Even as a poll worker, Fahid says he won't participate.

"We have a problem with the people who are responsible for Jerusalem, for they don't help the Arab sector as they should,” he said. “We maintain the decision to boycott the elections until the Arab sector enjoys support."

The Palestinian Liberation Organization has called for a boycott of municipal elections since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, and urges Palestinians not to participate either by voting or running for a seat.

"Participating in these elections will be considered normalization with the Israeli occupation authority, which means legitimizing the annexation of Jerusalem."

In the last municipal elections, in 2009, only two percent of the residents of East Jerusalem voted.

Kamil, a driver from East Jerusalem, cited the boycott as the primary reason for not voting, but also stressed anti-Arab racism and a lack of respect toward Muslim holy sites as important reasons for his lack of participation.

He said he was frustrated with Israeli institutions not providing services for the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem or even basic protection for religious sites.

"I am not going to vote for a person who wants to remove the call to prayer, who wants to demolish Arab homes and impose taxes specifically on the citizens of Jerusalem," he said. "There is indescribable racism inside Jerusalem."

"An occupying power can't ask the indigenous people who they are occupying, who they using discriminatory practices against, to vote in elections and practice democracy under the undemocratic procedures they are living under," said Najwa Darwish, director of the Bethlehem-based Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

She added that "They (Israelis) have to comply with international law and implement international standards, and then we can sit and speak about elections and democracy."

(Reuters, Ma’an, Al-Akhbar)

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