A whitebearded ultra-Orthodox candidate with a formidable scowl banks on voters being charmed by a cartoon of himself, while a Russian tycoon who speaks little Hebrew considers himself the dark horse in Jerusalem's bizarre mayoral race. Forget that nasty brawl in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where monks have not learned to take turns in more than a millenium. The real free-for-all will happen as ballots are tallied tonight to determine who'll be in charge of Jerusalem's City Hall.
The candidates are a cast of characters:
*NIR BARKAT, 49
Secular Israeli businessman who heads opposition on city council
*MEIR PORUSH, 53
MP since 1996 for United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party
*ARKADY GAYDAMAK, 56
A Russian-born businessman running under his adopted Hebrew name Arieh Bar-Lev
*DAN BIRON, 69
A former director of public television turned bar owner, Biron is running on behalf of the Green Leaf party and is calling for legalisation of cannabis.
Around the city, campaign posters have been shredded as soon as aides stick them up, and some religious parties balked at allowing any photographs of women candidates--some 33 are running for a varity of municipal positions--to be displayed on public buses. Oy veh.
Ben Lynfield, a locally-based journalist, reports how today's poll lays bare Jerusalem's tribal divides.
In a city usually dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, today's mayoral election in Jerusalem has lain bare its deep rifts as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi takes on a hi-tech entrepreneur for control of city hall.
Any last shred of pretence that the election is anything other than tribal warfare between the ultra-Orthodox and secular collapsed when the rabbi, Meir Porush, 53, suggested to supporters that a vote for him would be part of an ongoing ultra-Orthodox takeover of all of Israel's cities.
"Within 10 years there will not be a secular candidate at all in any city, except maybe in an abandoned village," he said. The father of 12 made the comment in Yiddish last week, but unbeknown to him, the remarks were being recorded and were later aired on Israeli television with Hebrew subtitles, harming his effort to win over secular voters.
The comment seemed to touch on the worst fears of secular Jerusalemites. In West Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighbourhood, where secular residents have mobilised against plans to establish an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten, the election is seen as holding the key as to whether the area "falls" to the ultra-Orthodox.
"Kiryat Yovel has been a pluralistic place but now it is changing," said Judith Sudilovsky, a mother of two young children. "Neighbours are being told by the ultra-Orthodox not to use their washing machines on Saturday because it disturbs the Sabbath. I'm concerned that two markets that serve non-kosher food, where I buy shrimps, will be shut down."
Mr Porush's office has dismissed such fears. "Anything that is open today will not shut down except for economic reasons," a spokesman said.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews – who gained control of city hall for the first time five years ago – account for just over a quarter of the electorate, while secular voters make up more than 40 per cent. But with rabbis encouraging the faithful to vote for ultra-Orthodox candidates, voter turnout among that group is higher.
Israeli doves have no real choice in this election. Like Mr Porush, Nir Barkat, the entrepreneur, is vowing to build a new Jewish neighbourhood in Arab East Jerusalem, and he also supports settlement within existing Arab areas.
Also standing is Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian-born businessman and owner of Jerusalem's nationalist Beitar football team, who is being tried in absentia by a Paris court for allegedly selling arms to Angolan rebels during the 1990s. The fourth mayoral candidate is Dan Biron, a bar owner , representing the Green Leaf party, which is calling for the legalisation of cannabis.
Palestinians are expected to boycott the polling in line with Palestinian Authority directives not to lend legitimacy to the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. But there is growing tensions in the area, with Israeli police evicting a disabled Palestinian man and his wife from their home over the weekend in what is seen as a move towards expansion of the Jewish settler presence in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.