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Friday, October 25, 2013

Two ultra-Orthodox operatives swung Jerusalem elections for Barkat

They have their doubts, but it’s quite possible that two (hitherto) unknown consultants are the ones responsible for the fact that Nir Barkat is Jerusalem’s newly-elected mayor, rather than Moshe Leon.

For the last three months, Avreyme Kroizer and Ya’akov Izak have conducted an exhausting roller-coaster chess game with a wily and more experienced duo, MKs Arieh Deri and Avigdor Lieberman, who were backing Leon. When the four arose from the table on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday after polling stations had closed, the opponent’s king sat down to write a concessionary speech.

Did the consultants do this while betraying the sector they came from? Did they close an early deal or even give a political bribe, such as a promise to Chaim Epstein, a one-man new Lithuanian faction on the City Council, that he would receive the post of deputy mayor?

“We promised nothing. All related reports are lies and fabrications”, said Izak. “No goodies were promised. We explained one thing to the ultra-Orthodox community and that was sufficient – we told them that supporting Moshe Leon was dangerous for their community.”

Both Kroizer and Izak were born 35 years ago to prominent ultra-Orthodox families. They have been circulating for years in the power centers of their community. Izak is, among other things, a spokesman for MK Ya’akov Litzman, while Kroizer is an experienced consultant who has close ties with MK Arieh Deri. Both of them have been external consultants to mayor Barkat for five years.

“We’re not lobbyists”, says Kroizer. “We weren’t hired to tell him when to wear a kippah and what the customs are when paying condolence visits. It’s not the cosmetics, it’s the core issue that’s important. He heads the most complex city in the world, with Jews and Arabs, with more churches than in Rome, some just outside the ultra-Orthodox enclave. He understands that he also has to serve this community. He wants to know what this community needs and what the priorities are.”

These two played a key role in the election, which was held within and around the ultra-Orthodox community. The pair managed to unravel the legendary ultra-Orthodox bloc, with close to 100,000 voters. Moshe Leon’s candidacy was based on this bloc. By all estimates all he needed was 30,000 non-Orthodox votes and victory would have been his.

Their achievement was based on a sophisticated exploitation of the web of fissures, alliances and small nuanced differences that exist among the ultra-Orthodox communities across Israel. In retrospect, what served them best was the mistakes made by their opponent, mainly in view of the schism in the Lithuanian orthodox community, which is growing ever-larger.

The two noticed a growing eagerness within the Jerusalem faction of the Lithuanian community to separate from the Degel Hatorah party and form their own new one (called Bnei Torah.) They contacted this faction and took advantage of mistakes made by Leon. In the last days before the election, they managed to recruit most of the Hassidic groups in Jerusalem. Ultimately, it is estimated that they took at least 15,000 votes away from Leon, mostly votes for the bloc's candidate, Haim Epstein, or blank ballots. Barkat received around 3,000 votes in this community. Barkat won the elections by a margin of 15,697 votes.

Leon's first and most critical mistake was during the High Holidays, according to the two consultants. Until then, Leon’s strategy had been to first recruit secular voters and only then go after the ultra-Orthodox. Kroizer says that “most of the Orthodox functionaries told Lieberman not to rely on them, even though they were the majority of his supporters at that time.

They told him to get 30,000 secular voters first. Leon was instructed to express himself in secular terms, with the Orthodox apparently already on board. However, he was blocked by a successful Barkat campaign, using antagonism to Lieberman and Deri, accusations of political trickery and Leon’s non-Jerusalem residence as a way of appealing to secular voters. Leon therefore turned back to the Orthodox community.” During the week of Sukkot, Leon’s people suggested that he first try to recruit the Orthodox community. They hoped that secular voters would join later if they sensed that he was going to win with the help of Orthodox voters.

In order to make progress, Leon organized a photo op with Rabbi Shteinman, the most prominent Lithuanian rabbi, in order to prove how strong he was in that community. What he didn’t take into account was that he was stepping right into the middle of a conflict that was splitting the Lithuanian orthodox world. He may have gained Shteinman and Degel Hatorah with that move, but he alienated another prominent leader, Rabbi Orbach, who may have pushed Epstein forward just to damage Leon’s campaign.

According to the two advisers, Leon agreed to two of Shteinman’s demands – to appoint one of his people as an adviser on Orthodox affairs and to boycott Rabbi Orbach’s faction, in the event that it got to City Council. This split the ultra-Orthodox bloc.

”They were disconnected and delusional. They thought that Orbach would stay with Shteinman and not put his own candidate forward”, says Izak. “Leon mistakenly thought that the ultra-Orthodox camp was one united bloc, a flock of sheep. It was no longer the case that a phone call from Lieberman could close a deal with Litzman, based on a promise of support from Deri. Only during the second month did they understand that this sector was split. Any other candidate would have realized that within a week.

For the final two months, both sides focused on two targets, the Hassidic and the Lithuanian communities. With the Lithuanians, Kroizer and Izak tried to keep Epstein in the race, while Lieberman was trying to steamroll him into quitting. With the Hassidic community they tried to keep the rabbis on the fence, rather than joining Leon’s side.

They were so successful that two weeks before the elections, the Council of Sages, made up of the leading Hassidic rabbis, decided not to support Leon and that each rabbi would decide on his own. The battle now moved to individual Hassidic camps – belonging to the Gur, the Belz, the Tzans and the Slonim rabbis. Kroizer says that Leon’s people tried to reverse the council’s decision.

They tried telling each rabbi that if he gave his support the others would follow suit. One tried telling a rabbi that if he gave him his signature for safekeeping he would only add it after the other rabbis signed their support. The rabbi answered that he would only give it when the others were available. Kroizer and Izak’s task was to prevent such conniving, keeping the elections clean.

Their main weapon was the surveys that showed that it would be difficult to beat Barkat. The rabbis really dislike joining the losing side. They cared about the odds. They were in Barkat’s coalition for five years and were partners in his plans.

Others thought that Lieberman should prove himself, perhaps by canceling one of the recent decrees such as the drafting of yeshiva students. “If it’s important to you, show some loyalty,” they told him, but Lieberman said he was unable to do that. His pressure peaked last week. “We knew that when he came to Rabbi Orbach, the steam roller was beyond our control. They talked of the draft law in exchange for supporting Leon. That’s what Orbach asked for,” says Izak.

“If that would have happened I would have switched to Leon’s camp," Izak added. "Canceling the draft law would have been like Lieberman promising to bring the messiah. But Lieberman said that he was not the Prime Minister and could not promise what was requested. So Orbach asked him why he was sitting there and told him to bring the Prime Minister. Orbach was our weak spot. We weren’t coordinated with him. We weren’t sure about him.”

The two consultants emphatically deny promising Epstein the deputy mayor’s job in exchange for remaining in the race. “We’re honest people. I told people that we were going to win and that we should work together”, says Izak. “We couldn’t promise such a thing,” adds Kroizer. However, they hasten to add that if Epstein does get the job it would not be unusual. “Barkat has an interest in adding all the Orthodox factions to his coalition. They grew from 12 to 14 members on the council and he is negotiating with them”, says Kroizer.

The highlight of the campaign occurred earlier in the week, in expectation of the Hassidic rabbis’ decision. A day before the election, Kroizer signed a deal with all of the rabbis, leaving everyone a free choice. On the day of elections Barkat had chalked up two achievements. The Hassidic communities were still undecided and Epstein was still on the ballot. Lieberman’s steamroller had failed this time.

Despite their success, the two aren’t convinced that Barkat wouldn’t have won even without their help. “If all the ultra-Orthodox had been united in supporting Leon, perhaps more secular voters would have turned out, says Kroizer. "The Orthodox sector on its own is not enough to win elections.

Even with all factions combined, they number only 95,000 voters. All the secular population would have come out to vote after the media reported the ‘danger’ to Jerusalem of an Orthodox takeover. The truth is that Barkat avoided an anti-Orthodox campaign, out of ideology and conviction, even though that would get out the secular vote. This helped him with the Orthodox sector. Our job was to get this message across."

Asked whether the two were attempting to reduce the criticism that they had betrayed the community and encouraged divisiveness, Kroizer said, “We’re not important enough to be divisive.” Izak said that going to Shteinman appeared to be taking sides. “The Orthodox candidate became a candidate of one side, Degel Hatorah. Even Agudat Yisrael people didn’t like the early attachment to the Lithuanians.”

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