Last week, municipal elections were held across Israel. This followed months of intensive work by NIF/SHATIL focusing on training potential candidates, increasing the representation of women (especially in Arab municipalities), getting out the vote, and supporting pluralism. Although we are never partisan and play no part in supporting specific candidates, like all nonprofit advocacy organizations we struggle to get our issues on the public agenda.
An initial analysis of the results shows grounds for optimism, but also cause for concern.
On the one hand, the number of female mayors dropped from five to two, despite there being more women candidates (40) than ever before. In addition, only 16 percent of the elected council members are women (up from 12 percent in the last elections). That’s a modest rise when compared to this year's Knesset elections, in which a record number of women (26) were elected.
On the other hand, in Arab communities, there was a significant breakthrough. Women were elected onto the local councils in ten Arab municipalities, as opposed to three the previous elections -- fully vindicating our decision to invest in the issue (we gave a major grant to five organizations to help train women candidates in the Arab sector).
Unfortunately, in many municipalities this was one of the most openly racist campaigns yet, and the perpetrators of this vitriol scored a number of successes. Arieh King’s pro-settlement faction (with a slogan of "Judaizing Jerusalem") won two seats in Jerusalem, Likud-Beytenu made inroads in Tel Aviv (this followed a campaign in which they promised to ‘silence’ the muezzins in Jaffa), and in Nazareth Illit Shimon Gapso easily won re-election.
At the same time, there were some important victories for liberal voices. Meretz doubled its numbers on the Tel Aviv municipal council, while supporters of pluralism won seats on the municipal councils in Ofakim, Sderot, Rehovot, Gedera, Tel Aviv, Givataim, Haifa, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem . The list of new council members also includes 24 people who took part in SHATIL’s activists' training courses or workshops run by the think-tank Shacharit. In Jerusalem, the pluralist camp grew from five to eight seats. That being said, there are today more anti-pluralist councilors than ever before (Shas and Agudat Yisrael).
While the turn-out was around the same as the previous election (50.9 percent), and declined significantly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it was relatively high on the periphery, and particularly high in Arab (ninety percent!) and Haredi municipalities. It is also important to note that the media's only coverage of the elections in the Arab sector focused on the occasional incidents of violence.
Having spoken to our grantees, I can say that there is a mixture of reactions. Those who were trying to increase the representation of women, for example, are disappointed. Those who worked to train candidates are pleased with the results, while recognizing that they could have been even better. And then there are those who point excitedly to the gains for the pluralist camp in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as grounds for optimism.
Rachel Liel is the Israel Executive Director of the New Israel Fund.