The fight over Jerusalem is the fight over Israel. Two sides – at times passionately opposed to each other and at times just opposed as a default position – are struggling for control of the city, and in that struggle one can see the larger conflict that will ultimately determine Israel’s fate. Except this is not the fight between Jew and Arab, but rather, between Jew and Jew. Incumbent mayor Nir Barkat, who represents secular interests, is being challenged by the ultra-orthodox Moshe Lion, who is backed both by Avigdor Lieberman, founder of one of Israel’s largest nationalist parties, and Aryeh Deri, leader of the religious Shas party. For this is the true battle for the soul of Israel as both options are viable. Just as easily as we can imagine Israel existing as it currently does, we can imagine a much more religious Israel. This gives us an incentive to follow and study the current mayoral race, which is more complex than at first seems to be. Whereas Lion is certainly the typical – albeit not archetypical – religious candidate, Barkat does not peddle the usual secular politics and does not hold the usual animus against religious folks. His politics perhaps represent a new path forward for Israel.
Barkat is largely a secular Israeli, but does he represent secular interest per se? He has made Jerusalem more tourist friendly and kept non-ultra orthodox Jews from leaving the city by loosening sabbath restrictions. Indeed, by all accounts he made the city more modern. But, does this make him a secular candidate? Keep in mind that in Israel, secular often connotes anti-religious.
Barkat is a nationalist, and although it is a tautology, it is worth pointing out that he embraces the Israeli national character. That character is a Jewish character, and Barkat never challenged that. Why do I say he is a nationalist? Barkat has held firm that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel. To that end, he has argued that Jews should be able to live in and settle whatever parts of Jerusalem they wish, even the historically Arab areas.
Barkat simultaneously made Jerusalem more hospitable for secular Israelis and affirmed its Jewish character. Importantly, he did both of these things without explicitly degrading the other. Thus, I believe, Barkat and his policies represent a new path forward for Israel: a synthesis of secular and religious Israel as a national Israel. In this way, the two competing forces become complementary. In other words, the Jerusalem Barkat is creating is a Jerusalem that is proudly and assertively Jewish, yet at the same time is not ancient or parochial. This is done by embracing the idea of a national Israel, not a secular or religious one.
Of course, this will leave neither sides totally satisfied. The religious Israelis will worry about the purity and character of the state, and the security of their welfare benefits. The secularists will be resentful of having to accommodate religious Israelis. I nonetheless maintain that the interests of each group can be mutually advanced. Offenses will always be taken, and inflamed sentiments should not keep us from making progress.
As Barkat was reelected 51-46%, I believe he offers a viable path forward.