The 2018 Jerusalem Municipal Elections: Highlights & Lessons

As we noted in the run-up to the 2018 municipal elections in Jerusalem, there was unprecedented speculation regarding both possible Palestinian participation in the voting, and the likely impact of the election results on the Palestinian sector in East Jerusalem. The smoke has now cleared, and it is possible to examine what the actual election results disclosed. Spoiler alert: the results of both the first and second rounds confirmed the main points of our analysis published in advance of the elections.

Q: Who won?

A: After two rounds of voting, the winner was Moshe Lion

The first round of the 2018 Jerusalem municipal elections took place on October 30.

Since elections to the Municipal Council are based on proportional representation of party lists, results of this first round of voting were decisive in determining the makeup of the next Municipal council (discussed below).

The election for the position of mayor, in contrast, is based on votes cast directly for individual candidates, and in the event that no candidate receives at least 40% of the votes, a runoff election is held between the two front-runners. In the October 30 voting, no candidate broke the required 40% threshold; coming out with the highest percentages of the vote were Moshe Lion (former Director General of Netanyahu’s Prime Minister’s Office), who received 32.7% of the ballots cast, and Hitorirut candidate Ofer Berkowitz, who received 29.4%.

Consequently, a second round of voting was held on November 13th. In that run-off vote, Lion eked out a narrow victory, receiving 50.85% of the ballots cast.

Q: Did the much-anticipated surge in Palestinian participation in voting materialize?

A:  Nominally, yes; in substance, no. The “surge” failed to materialize.

In these latest elections, approximately 2,900 Palestinians cast a ballot for the Municipal Council, as opposed to approximately 1,600 who voted in the 2013 election*. On the face of things, one could argue that this represents an 81% increase in the voter turnout and thus a significant increase. Such an argument would be overlooking what these numbers really say: in terms of votes cast compared to the total number of eligible voters, Palestinian turnout went from 0.9% to 1.5% of the eligible Palestinian voters – a difference without much of a distinction.

An examination of the voting patterns in East Jerusalem strengthens the conclusion that little changed in these elections.

Municipal Council: There were 2,900 ballots cast in Palestinian East Jerusalem for Municipal Council. The party list headed by Palestinian activist Ramadan Dabash received approximately 2,100 of those ballots, that is, 72% of the total. Of these, 1,300 (45%) came from just two East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods located adjacent to Dabash’s home. Notably, in those two neighborhoods the level of participation in this election was 10 times higher than it was in 2013. What this indicates, clearly, is that the vote for Dabash was a local, isolated phenomenon (see below). Looking more broadly, twelve Palestinian neighborhoods actually saw a modest decline in the voter turnout in comparison with the 2013 elections.

Mayoral race: The votes cast for Mayor in the two last elections validate our observations: the number of Palestinians voting remained largely unchanged across both, with approximately 1,300 individuals casting a ballot in each. In the second round of the elections, the participation sank even further to approximately 800 voters, or just 0.4% of eligible Palestinian voters.

Q: Were there acts of intimidation or voter suppression on Election Day?

A: None were reported.

In our previous analysis, we acknowledged the very real, serious, and potentially dangerous campaign of threats and intimidation carried out against Palestinians taking part in these elections — that is, the list for Municipal Council led by Palestinian activist Aziz Abu Sarah (which he eventually abandoned) and the list led by Sur Bahir resident Ramadan Dabash (discussed above). Likewise, we do not discount the power of social pressure against voting, or the impact of religious fatwas forbidding participation the vote.

That said, there were no reports of fear tactics or intimidation targeting Palestinians on Election Day, and those who did vote expressed no concerns to elections observers regarding the potential for negative personal consequences for having done so.

In addition, there were no reports of election day voter suppression on the part of Israel or the parties participating in the elections. The approach of official Israel and the candidates to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem was characterized by apathy, not hostility.

Our conclusion is unequivocal: the Palestinians of East Jerusalem did not participate in the elections for the simple reason that they chose not to do so, just as they have chosen not to do so in past elections. The threats against the Palestinian party lists and candidates prior to the elections were real and consequential; the impact of any election-day intimidation (or enticement) was marginal.

Q: What are the “Macro” Take-aways from the 2018 Elections in Jerusalem?

A: While we are focusing on the Palestinian dimension of this election cycle, that dimension cannot be detached from some of the broader issues relating to the election and its results.

The election returns evoke some very sobering thoughts regarding the current profile of contemporary Jerusalem. Fully 38% of the population, the Palestinians, boycotts elections. Another 23%, the ultra-Orthodox, vote as instructed by their rabbis. The rest, the secular and the modern Orthodox, exercise their own judgment, but a vast majority of them are too apathetic to go bother going to the polls.

These patterns of voting/non-voting publics create a situation in which Jerusalem is a city without traditional constituencies.

Any new mayor’s primary obligations are to those who got him elected. In the case of Jerusalem in 2018, this means that Moshe Lion will see his responsibility as being toward the rabbis, rather than the people who actually voted (and certainly not the people who didn’t vote). This situation will be further complicated by Lion’s relationship with Municipal Council. In every election it is almost a foregone conclusion that a duly elected mayor will have significant representation on the Municipal Council. In the current election, the results were highly irregular, and perhaps without precedent: no one on Lion’s party list, including Lion himself, was elected to the Municipal Council. This does not augur well for the city in general, and especially for East Jerusalem.

What about Lion’s own political proclivities? Lion emerged from the ranks of the less ideological elements in the Likud. However, support for East Jerusalem settlements and settlers is so deeply ingrained even in this segment of the party as to be second nature. Lion never mentioned the Palestinians of East Jerusalem in his campaign, and actively cooperated with Aryeh King, who represents the right-wing fringe of the East Jerusalem settlers. Consequently, it is highly likely that Lion will continue to do the bidding of the settlers in East Jerusalem, and to neglect the Palestinian sector. Nothing in his world view or the way he understands his political interests suggests otherwise.

That said, there are a number of things worth paying attention to which may somehow make the prospects for more reasonable policies less bleak:

  • Lion is a deft manager and a wily political operative. Nothing has prepared him for the complexities of Jerusalem, where so many sensitive and powerful international equities are in play.  He may yet grow into the role of mayor; the international community would be well advised to engage so as to familiarize him with the geopolitical and religious dimensions of the city over which he will now preside.
  • In an emphatically religious and nationalistic right wing city, Berkowitz, who is moderate and secular, came within a hair’s breadth of winning the election. This is something that Lion cannot ignore. He will need to appeal to more moderate and more secular sectors of the city, perhaps mitigating some of his more problematic proclivities.
  • Pay attention to the coalition. It is not unthinkable that Berkowitz’s Hitorirut Party, or even Meretz, will be part of Lion’s coalition. That will not revolutionize the situation in East Jerusalem, but will likely create opportunities to promote more equitable policies in East Jerusalem, however modestly.

*Determining the levels of East Jerusalem Palestinian participation in the elections poses daunting methodological challenges. The term “East Jerusalem” includes 215,000 Israelis living in the large settlement neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, so examining the vote in “East Jerusalem” is useless for our purposes. Notably, some of the data on the results purporting to deal with the Palestinian sector inexplicably include the Jewish and Armenians Quarters of the Old City; residents of these areas are not Palestinian and their levels of participation are tens and hundreds of times higher than in the Palestinian sector. Likewise, hundreds of the 2700 Israeli settlers living in settlement enclaves in places like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah cast their ballots in “Palestinian” polling places. Our estimates of the actual Palestinian voter turnout is based on the official polling data, and our attempt to correct for  the votes of non-Palestinians included in the official data for the reasons cited above. While it is impossible to provide official, precise numbers, we are confident that this methodology produces a faithful picture of the results of the elections