Cablegate: Israeli Municipal Elections On November 11 Preview


DE RUEHTV #2505/01 3101804
R 051804Z NOV 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY Israeli voters go to the polls on November 11 to
choose their mayors and local councils in municipal elections
across the country, with Kadima -- in its first municipal
elections -- making the biggest push of any major party in
advance of the February 2009 national elections. Women are
expected to make some gains, and despite a Yom Kippur riot in
Akko (Acre) that heightened Arab-Jewish tension, races in
most Arab communities are expected to revolve around local
economic issues and traditional clan politics rather than
religious ideology. Trends for the upcoming national
election are not readily apparent due to the loose
affiliation of many local leaders and local parties with the
national parties and the dominance of local issues. Many
Knesset members (MKs) begin their political careers as
mayors, however, and candidates and parties -- including
Kadima and the Green Party -- are hoping to plant a few seeds
that could bear fruit in February. END SUMMARY


2. Israel holds its municipal elections on November 11. In
the Israeli system, all municipalities hold their elections
every five years on the same date, except in unusual
circumstances. The ties between the national political
parties and their local affiliates can be tenuous and, with
the possible exception of Jerusalem, local issues dominate to
an even greater extent than in the United States. Likewise,
citizens typically vote for mayors because of their personal
qualities and policies, not their putative party affiliation.
An October 2 Jerusalem Post editorial commented that
"decisions taken by the country's 260 local authorities can
affect our environment, the quality of education and even the
value of our real estate more profoundly than the actions of
the ministries in Jerusalem" and that "Labor and the Likud,
which once vied mightily for each city council seat, only
exacerbate the disinterest by no longer bothering to field
candidates -- in Jerusalem and plenty of other locales as
well." The closest thing to a national issue that could
affect a number of local races is the matter of unpaid
salaries to municipal workers. But even in this matter, the
funds are controlled and allocated by the national government
and it is a problem predominantly in the Arab sector.


3. Local government in Israel is strictly limited by the
central government, which must approve most laws and limits
the ability of municipalities to generate tax revenue. A
representative from the Union of Municipal Authorities told
poloff that these budget problems were compounded by a 2007
change in the law that moved control of water revenues from
local authorities to a newly created local board and removed
profits generated by water sales from the general municipal
budget. Among the limitations faced by Israeli mayors is law
enforcement, as the Israeli police force is a national body
controlled and financed by the central government. As a
result, crime is not the local campaign issue in Israel that
it is in the United States. (One contact noted that when
Giuliani was mayor of New York he "moved the budget around"
and added thousands of police officers to clean up the
streets -- something local Israeli leaders could not do.)

4. Mayors have been elected in direct elections since the
1978 municipal vote. (Previously, mayors had been chosen by
municipal councils, and served at their discretion.) Mayors
are elected at the same time as the municipal councils, but
on a separate ballot from the municipal councils, where
voters choose between competing lists of candidates rather
than competing individual candidates. Now that they have
been freed from subservience to the local councils, and
protected by a fixed term, Israeli mayors (and municipal
governments) enjoy greater security - and offer greater
stability, according to the Union of Municipal Authorities -
than the national government and Knesset, which goes to
elections with greater frequency.


5. Kadima's national party organization is working hard on
promoting its candidates at the local level in an effort to
parlay success in these elections to the national elections
scheduled for February 10. Kadima faction chairman Yoel
Hasson, who heads the party's municipal elections operations,
told Israeli journalists on November 4 that there is no doubt
that Kadima will be the ruling party at the municipal level
and that voting for his party's candidates this week prepares
the electorate to vote for Kadima in February as well.
Kadima is leveraging several of its advantages to gain the
upper hand in these local elections. The party, as the
largest faction in the Knesset, has more money than its
competitors and is therefore able to field and support more

candidates. Kadima also enters the elections with the
advantage of having substantially more incumbent mayors than
its chief opponents Likud and Labor. This will be the first
municipal elections for Kadima, which was formed when former
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke from Likud in November

6. The Labor, Likud, and SHAS parties have not made local
elections a priority. Kadima's opponents are conserving
their limited financial resources for the national campaign.
For example, the limited overt support Likud has provided for
the Jerusalem city council race includes posters prominently
featuring party chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, who is flanked
by smaller images of two Likud candidates vying for council
positions in Jerusalem. SHAS, for its part, is focusing on
targeted communities - Jerusalem, Eilat, Beersheba, and
Netivot - and is relying on its members to vote in accordance
with the endorsements of the party's spiritual leader Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef. Labor, which once fielded candidates
nationwide, holds only Holon as a power base and lost
Givatayim, another former Labor bastion, to Kadima in a by
election one year ago.

7. Several contacts suggested that the Green Party might be
the one to watch. Party leader Peer Wisner is the current
Deputy Mayor for Tel Aviv and is a mayoral candidate in that
city, and a Haaretz article quoted Green organizer (and
former Meretz Deputy Mayor for Tel Aviv) Michael Roeh that
the party was aiming to gain at least a third of the council
seats in the elections it participates in, and that an
element in their favor was that the "big parties have nearly
lost all interest in local elections." Kobby Barda,
Spokesman and Director of Foreign Relations for the
Municipality of Netanya, speculated that if the Green Party
had some success in the municipal elections it could give
them enough momentum to grab as many as six or 7 seats in the
next Knesset if they are able to capture the protest vote
that the Pensioners Party garnered in the 2006 elections.
Barda offered that every election has one party that makes an
impact that has influence beyond its numbers as a popular
coalition builder and swing vote, even if that influence
lasts for only one administration and the party then slips
back into obscurity with the next election. (Some predict
the Pensioners Party will disappear completely from the
Knesset in the February 2009 national elections, but this
party may remain a political force at the municipal level.)
Barda characterized the Israel Green Party as much more
conservative (on matters such as security) than most European
Green Parties that espouse very liberal social and political
agendas across the board, and willing to work with whomever
forms the next government in order to advance their core
environmental agenda.


8. Netanya mayor Miriam Feierberg (Likud) and Herzliya mayor
Yael German (Meretz) are the only two female mayors of
Israeli municipalities. (Only ten women have been elected
mayor in Israel during its sixty years of existence.) Crime
is an issue in both cities, particularly Netanya, which has a
reputation (exaggerated by the media, according to Barda) for
gangland violence, but both candidates are expected to win
reelection, as they can deflect criticism about the crime
problem to the Israeli national police. The number of women
candidates is up slightly, according to veteran observers,
and growing Tel Aviv suburb Raanana could make history by
becoming the first Israeli city with a female majority in its
municipal council.


9. Thirty nine local and regional councils in Israel are Arab
or mixed cities. Of the 241 Arab candidates for mayor, none
are women. Elections in Arab communities tend to be contests
between competing extended families, with smaller groups
joining forces with the dominant clan to a run lists in a
particular municipality. The Islamic Movement is the
governing party in two Arab cities, Umm el-Fahm and Kafr
Kasim. According to a November 7 Jerusalem Post article, a
much larger number of Arab municipalities, including Rahat,
are run by parties aligned with Kadima, if only for
instrumental - i.e. practical - benefits rather than
ideological reasons. Tensions between Jews and Arabs in the
region have risen since an incident when an Arab man drove
his car through a Jewish neighborhood in Acre on Yom Kippur,
leading to riots in that city. But shrinking resources and
rising poverty suggest that in most Arab communities economic
survival is expected to trump ideology as the theme of this
election. Indications are that most Arab and Jewish voters
will look to someone who can pay the light bill rather than
someone who will light the torch for their ideology.


10. Despite Kadima's push at the local level, the focus of
Israel's municipal elections is on "bread and butter" issues
and typically do not accurately foretell national electoral
results. Many mayoral contests include candidates who are
selling their personal image rather than that of the party in
which they belong. Furthermore, party affiliations for local
politicians are more fluid than for those on the national
level, leaving some doubt as to whether candidates actually
reflect the priorities of their national party. For example,
Dov Khenin, an MK with the Hadash party (formerly "communist"
but now a mixed Jewish-Arab party on the far left), is
running for mayor of Tel Aviv as a member of "A City for All
of Us," which is a coalition that includes Likud and even
ultra-Orthodox members on its list. Despite the disconnect
between election results in municipal and national elections,
many MKs begin as mayors, and with Kadima hoping to flex its
muscle, and the Green Party making a serious effort to build
momentum toward the national elections, trends could still
emerge that will shape the national campaigns and February
general elections.

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