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Divisions loom over municipal elections

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-09

The Jerusalem mayoral race takes the spotlight in Israel's municipal elections, to be held Tuesday. The candidates hold widely divergent positions on the future of the hotly contested Holy City.

A scandal-hit Israeli-Russian billionaire, a pro-cannabis left winger, a secular millionaire and an ultra-Orthodox MP are vying to run Jerusalem, a city whose status is a key stumbling block in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
  
Israel is holding municipal elections on Tuesday with the Jerusalem contest overshadowed by political, religious and ethnic divisions that belie campaign pledges to ensure the Holy City remains "unified".
  
Israel captured largely Arab-inhabited east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it, declaring the whole city to be its "eternal and undivided capital."
  
That stance is sharply at odds with the Palestinians, who want east Jerusalem as the capital of a promised future state, and is not recognised by the international community.
  
But that is only one of many daunting challenges that will face the next mayor. Jerusalem has the country's highest poverty rate, combined with continuously shrinking municipal tax revenues and a sharp drop in the number of young people.
  
Municipal elections will be held throughout Israel on Tuesday, but the Jerusalem poll will be the most closely followed.
  
Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox enclave in the heart of Jerusalem, has become a battle zone among candidates whose victory may hinge on the city's growing religious population, which traditionally shuns national politics.
  
Most Palestinian residents, who make up almost a third of the city's 700,000 population, are expected to boycott the election as they have done since Israel conquered east Jerusalem.
  
"Our religious and national positions on the issue are clear: they forbid participation as a voter or a candidate in these elections for an authority that represents the Israeli occupation," said Mohammed Hussein, mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
  
Jerusalem's Palestinian governor Adnan al-Husseini lashed out at city authorities for discriminating against Arab neighbourhoods, which receive fewer municipal services than Jewish ones.
  
"We only hear from the municipality when it's election time or when it wants to destroy our homes. This mayor's office is only ripping people off," he said.
  
City authorities seldom grant building permits to Palestinians and often tear down houses built without permits.
  
For the vast majority of Israel's Jewish population, "eternal and undivided" is a sacred mantra.
  
The four candidates have repeatedly voiced their opposition to any change in the status of Jerusalem, where the Jewish population is traditionally mostly right-wing.
  
Millionaire Nir Barkat, representing the city's declining number of secular Jews, said he quit 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, ultra-Orthodox MP Meir Porush, has also declared that "any concessions over Jerusalem are out of the question."
  
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.
  
But Barkat, Porush and Israeli-Russian billionaire Arkady Gaydamak are promising to tackle the deep inequalities between the Jewish and the Palestinian areas.
  
"It's like the Wild West in these neighbourhoods," said Barkat. "The city should offer equal rights to all of its residents."
  
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 two leading candidates have promised legislation to attract companies, especially from the country's developed computer industry, and young families to Jerusalem.
  
"Young people are leaving the city that is becoming more and more religious ... Jerusalem deserves better than what Lupolianski gave it," Barkat said, referring to the current mayor, ultra-Orthodox Uri Lupolianski.
  
Even the white-bearded Porush, dressed in traditional black suit and fedora, toured clubs, pubs and restaurants on Thursday in a last-minute bid to win support from young Jerusalemites.
  
The vote may head to a second round in two weeks' time as opinion polls place Porush neck-and-neck with Barkat.
  
Gaydamak may have his attention drawn elsewhere as he is being investigated in France over the so-called Angola-gate arms deal scandal in the 1990s. The fourth candidate is Dan Biron, director of Israel's Channel One television.
  

Date created : 2008-11-09

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