A tense mayoral race in Jerusalem is the focus of municipal elections across Israel which take place ahead of parliamentary elections in February. The city is a key stumbling-block in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday for municipal elections which are enlivened this year by a mayoral race in Jerusalem that highlights the city's deep political and religious divisions.
The elections are also being seen as a test of strength ahead of parliamentary elections on February 10, with the leading parties engaged in a battle for prestige and control over more than 150 local councils.
Across the country, political activists were using the last days of the campaign to hand out flyers and hang posters in streets and squares, while mayoral candidates mingled with residents in markets, pubs and clubs.
Israel's local councils have suffered severe fiscal woes in recent years and have undergone a sluggish reform process, but for some cities Tuesday's vote marks a crossroads.
In Tel Aviv, Mayor Ron Huldai vies for a third term after 10 years marked by an impressive economic boom that has turned the coastal city into a vibrant financial and cultural centre.
But the former air force pilot is facing stiff and unexpected competition from radical left-wing candidate Dov Hanin whose environmental, socialist ticket has attracted thousands of youngsters angered by soaring rents that are threatening to drive out the city's population of students and artists.
In Jerusalem, a scandal-hit Israeli-Russian billionaire, a secular millionaire and an ultra-Orthodox MP are vying to become mayor of a city which is a key stumbling block in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israel captured Arab 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 their promised state.
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.
For the vast majority of the city's Jewish population, "eternal and undivided" is a sacred mantra.
The four candidates have repeatedly voiced their opposition to any change in the city's status.
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.
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 large 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.
The vote may head to a second round in two weeks' time as opinion polls place Porush neck-and-neck with Barkat.
Date created : 2008-11-11