Netanyahu ally seeks Jerusalem mayor seat in Israeli local polls

Polls opened as scheduled at 7:00 am and were due to close at 10 pm; main results were not expected until Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: AFP.

JERUSALEM – Israelis voted in local elections Tuesday that include an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vying for Jerusalem mayor and controversial first-time polls in part of the occupied Golan Heights.

Polls opened as scheduled at 7:00 am and were due to close at 10 pm. Main results were not expected until Wednesday.

"What matters most is to improve the daily lives of residents," said Emmanuel Attia, 45, who was voting early Tuesday in the Israeli settlement of Elazar near Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

Polls for mayors and councils, held every five years, are seen as largely local affairs with few national implications, though they have served as a springboard for politicians harbouring national ambitions.

One significant new element to Tuesday's vote sees minority Druze cast ballots in four villages in the Golan Heights for the first time since Israel seized the strategic region from Syria in 1967.

The vote in Majdal Shams, Ein Qinya, Bukata and Masadeh follows a court challenge by a group of Druze who pressed for the right to hold it.

Israel has previously appointed local leaders in the villages.

But the vote is controversial since many Druze who feel connected to Syria fear it will help Israel legitimise its control over the region.

The international community has never recognised Israel's annexation of the Golan.

There has been a campaign to boycott the vote and a string of candidates have pulled out.

There is similar controversy in east Jerusalem, which Israel also occupied in 1967 and later annexed.

Unlike in national elections, Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem who have not taken Israeli citizenship are eligible to vote in local polls.

But the vast majority boycott the process, refusing to recognise Israel's control over the sector of the city they see as the capital of their future state.

Some 300,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem.

Among the few Palestinians in the race is Ramadan Dabash, who heads a list of 12 Arab candidates running for seats on the city council.

He has Israeli citizenship - rare among Jerusalem Palestinians - and is a former member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.


Candidates running for municipal polls often do not have formal links to national parties, instead of campaigning with locally formed alliances.

"There are attempts to make local politics into national politics," said Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"In some places, the right-wing is carrying campaigns that are against Arabs or against foreign workers. So this is an attempt to take national issues into local elections, but I'm not sure that they are so successful."

The Jerusalem mayoral race features six candidates, increasing the likelihood of a second-round runoff on November 13 if no one receives at least 40% of the vote.

They are vying to replace Mayor Nir Barkat, who is leaving office after two terms to pursue national office as part of Netanyahu's Likud.

Netanyahu is backing his minister for Jerusalem affairs, Ze'ev Elkin, though he faces a tough race.

Others who have garnered significant attention include Moshe Leon, backed by Jewish ultra-Orthodox factions, and secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch.

Ultra-Orthodox candidate Yossi Deitch is also in the race.

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up some 10% of Israel's population, wield particular influence in Jerusalem and the city has previously had an ultra-Orthodox mayor.

But any mayor must deal with the various factions represented on Jerusalem's 31-seat council.

Around 16,000 police and volunteers were being deployed for the vote, a police spokesman said.