Haifa elects its first woman mayor, Jerusalem race goes to runoff

(JTA) – A woman was elected mayor of Haifa for the first time, while the mayor’s race in Jerusalem will go to a runoff following municipal elections held across Israel on Tuesday.

In Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai will serve a fifth term as mayor after defeating his deputy.

In Jerusalem, voters will return to the polls in two week to choose between Municipal Council member Moshe Lion and former deputy mayor Ofer Berkovitch, who each received about 30 per cent of the vote, failing to reach the 40 per cent threshold to avoid a runoff.

Lion, a businessman, was backed by both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, as well as other haredi Orthodox factions.

Zeev Elkin, the Jerusalem affairs minister and Likud party Knesset member, was regarded as the front-runner and was backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but finished with 20 per cent of the vote.

Some 60 per cent of eligible Israeli voters, or about four million people, voted on Tuesday, up 10 per cent from 2013. This year, municipal election day was a national holiday for the first time, as it is for national elections.

In Tel Aviv, Huldai defeated Asaf Zamir with 46 per cent of the vote.  Zamir garnered 34 per cent of the vote. He had been running in third place in the race until Stav Shaffir, who served in Knesset for the Zionist Union, dropped out of the race.

In Haifa, Einat Kalisch-Rotem defeated incumbent mayor Yona Yahav to become the first woman mayor of one of Israel’s three largest cities. Kalisch-Rotem, who garnered 55 per cent of the vote, was backed by Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay but not the local Labor party, and was supported by the left-wing Meretz Party and the haredi community in Haifa.

Ten women were elected to head communities in Israel, over seven women elected in 2013.

In the largely haredi Orthodox city of Beit Shemesh, located about 20 miles west of Jerusalem, the race between incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul of the Shas Party and Aliza Bloch, a member of the religious Zionist community was too close to tell as of Wednesday noon. With 99 per cent of the votes counted, some 250 votes separated the two candidates. The municipality was preparing on Wednesday to count ballots cast by soldiers on their bases.

In recent years, the city of 80,000 has become a flashpoint for conflicts between Israel’s haredi community and its secular and modern Orthodox populations. Conflict has arisen, for example, over restrictions on women’s dress and gender-segregated seating on public buses. In a widely publicized incident in 2011, an 8-year-old Orthodox girl was spat on by haredim on the way to school for her perceived immodest dress. Following the 2013 elections the city was forced to hold a repeat election after the results were invalidated due to voter fraud. Abutbul, then the incumbent, won both the first and repeat election.

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