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Israelis elect ultra-Orthodox mayor for Jerusalem amid Palestinian boycott

Moshe Leon is a businessman favoured by two key members of Israel's rightist cabinet and defeated a secular contender Ofer Berkovitch
A campaign poster of municipal candidate Moshe Leon on a bus ahead of the upcoming Jerusalem municipal elections, in Jerusalem on 28 October (AFP)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidate won election as mayor of Jerusalem on Wednesday, in a run-off against a secular contender for a post that shapes Israel's rule over the city at the heart of its conflict with the Palestinians.

Businessman Moshe Leon, a religious-minded bureaucrat favoured by two key members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist cabinet, including recently resigned defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, defeated Ofer Berkovitch, the 35-year-old deputy mayor, after neither took enough votes in a five-man contest two weeks ago to win outright.

Nearly final results after Tuesday's run-off gave Leon 51.5 percent of the votes compared to Berkovitch's 48.5. 

Leon’s faction did not receive a single seat on the council, marking the first time that someone who does not hold a municipal council seat is elected the city’s mayor.

Leon now has to work with an ultra-Orthodox dominated coalition, the Jewish Home party, which will control all the main portfolios.

The ballot was held as part of nationwide Israeli municipal elections, in which many candidates ran as independents or on non-traditional party lists, making it difficult to gauge any broader political impact from the results.

While Netanyahu’s own approval ratings are strong, a senior member of his party and cabinet who ran for Jerusalem mayor with his blessing, Zeev Elkin, came in third in the first round of the poll.

Meanwhile, Haaretz reported that on Wednesday morning complaints were made against Leon's supporters who tore down posters of mayor rivals, destroyed rivals' ballot papers in the voting booths, and disseminated inciting material against Berkovitch.

The Jerusalem vote was largely boycotted by Palestinians, who make up a third of the city’s population.

They live in the occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and unilaterally annexed it in 1982 in a move that has not won international recognition.

Each election round, Israeli mayor candidates attempt desperately to get Palestinians to vote, promising them housing, but Palestinians refuse.

Many Jerusalem Palestinians complain of entrenched neglect by the Israeli municipality.

A Palestinian candidate who bucked the boycott by running for the administrative Jerusalem City Council failed to garner enough votes to get in.

Both Leon and Berkovitch had vowed to appeal to all sectors of the city. While 21 percent of its Jewish population is secular, another 43 percent are religiously traditional and 36 percent are ultra-Orthodox.