From Khan Younis to the campaign trail: IDF reservists run in local elections

Campaigns for Tuesday’s vote have been at a standstill with 688 candidates doing reserve duty, and the big issues shifted from parking to building rocket-safe rooms, candidates say

When local elections are held in Israel every five years, the campaigns are usually inescapable, with posters and billboards seemingly everywhere, frequent campaign events, constant text messages to potential voters and kids on street corners and at shopping centers, handing out flyers and stickers with their parents’ faces on them. The top issues often include parking spots, traffic, school amenities and bus routes — and in some cases, corruption. 

A wartime campaign, however, is a much more staid affair. The top-of-mind issues have changed drastically, and the challenges are compounded for candidates who have been serving in IDF reserve duty for a significant portion of the last four months.

The elections, set to be held in 241 local authorities across most of Israel on Tuesday, were originally scheduled for Oct. 31, 2023, but had to be postponed following the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7. The Interior Ministry originally set the new date for Jan. 30, which sparked significant pushback in light of the 688 candidates whom the IDF said could not be released from reserve duty.

A weekslong dispute between Interior Minister Moshe Arbel of Shas and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the latter of whom opposed holding the vote in January because most of his Religious Zionist Party’s local council candidates and a quarter of its mayoral candidates were fighting in the war, ensued. Adding to the complications, candidates petitioned the High Court of Justice to defer the vote for a number of reasons, including that the date favored parties with few or no candidates on reserve duty – i.e. Haredim and Arabs. A new date, Feb. 27, was reached.

Another big question ahead of this week’s vote had been how to hold an election for the over 100,000 residents of towns on the borders with Lebanon and Gaza who have been evacuated from their homes since the Hamas attacks. Arbel ultimately decided to postpone those 12 local elections to November, over a year after their originally scheduled date.

Candidates who are running this week described campaigns that – like much else in Israel – are completely different than what they had been before Oct. 7, and had misgivings about holding an election during a war.

Yaron Rosenthal is running to be the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, leading the settlement bloc adjacent to Jerusalem that includes Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, where he grew up and resides today. 

He spent most of the past four months serving in a reconnaissance platoon in the IDF Paratroopers’ Brigade in Khan Younis, Gaza. 

“Like many other reservists, I was called up on Oct. 7,” Rosenthal told JI. “When I got there, I was told that everyone running in the elections is exempt from duty, but I said that I wouldn’t leave.”

“I knew I’d pay a price [in the election] because I disappeared from Gush Etzion for four months, after leading a campaign…but I agreed to pay that price because we educate our children to contribute to the collective. I cannot look my brothers, children and friends in the eye after talking about this value all my life if, in the moment of truth, I don’t do it,” he said.

Rosenthal returned to Gush Etzion about two weeks before the election, and said he’s certain he made the right choice: “When you want to lead the public, first of all, you have to set an example.”

Now that he’s back on the campaign trail, Rosenthal said he is spending his time and energy trying to reach voters in Gush Etzion. He’s holding small parlor meetings in people’s homes rather than large campaign events that would be viewed as inappropriate in wartime.

Rosenthal was one of several reservists who petitioned the High Court against the January election date and had hoped that the vote would be pushed off even further than the final date.

“A campaign during a war is not a good thing. It damages our unity. That’s why I petitioned the court,” he said. “I am trying to adjust the campaign to this period, when we need to maintain our unity. I always used positive messages, but I lowered my profile, as well.”


Noa Shalom, 26, is running for a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council, with the Hitorerut (“Awakening”) list, meant to represent the capital’s pluralistic, Zionist young people.

When the war broke out, Shalom and Hitorerut “set up the ‘civilian war room’ in Jerusalem, one of the biggest [volunteer efforts] in the country,” she recounted to Jewish Insider. “We provided every kind of service – rides, supplies, food for soldiers, mental health, babysitters for families. I was one of the founders and worked very intensely for the first 10 days, and then I was called for reserve duty.”

Shalom, an officer in the elite IDF Intelligence Unit 8200, returned from reserve duty last month after over two months of service. About half of the Hitorerut list did reserve duty in recent months, and some have yet to return. 

“We are not out in full force,” Shalom said. “We think the idea of holding an election in this situation is wrong.”

Hitorerut, which has a history of representing a younger demographic, had a rule of positive campaigning, and has continued in that vein, seeking to send unifying messages, Shalom explained. The party’s campaign has focused on the fact that its target demographic has been an active part of the war effort, with the slogan, “The victory generation is taking responsibility.” 

The slogan is also a way to broadcast to the public that the candidates are reservists without showing them in uniform, which is illegal.

“We want to represent the generation that entered the vacuum after Oct. 7…going to reserves and volunteering, holding the city together,” Shalom said. “We want to bring in new energy and be a voice for unity, for religious and secular, left and right, in Jerusalem, a city that needs it.” 

While housing, economic development and jobs were major issues before the war, the party recently broadened the security chapter of its platform, Shalom said, which includes “local security, emergency preparation on the municipal level and personal safety, especially in Jerusalem where there are a lot of neighborhoods on the seam [between predominantly Israeli and Palestinian areas] and complex identities.”

Shalom noted the specific challenges for women running for office in Jerusalem, where a Haredi extremist minority is known to deface advertisements featuring women. Images of her face have been repeatedly torn off of buses and street signs in recent weeks. 

In addition, she hopes to be the first LGBTQ woman on Jerusalem’s City Council, which has only ever had one gay member, in the early 2000s: “We are not willing to accept the old situation and the lack of representation,” she said.


The Tel Aviv mayoral race is usually one to watch, with high-profile candidates duking it out amid massive media attention – even though Mayor Ron Huldai has won every race since 1998. The former Air Force pilot, now 79, who fought in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, is projected to win again, though nearly a third of voters are still undecided. 

Huldai’s major opponent is Orna Barbivai, the IDF’s first female major-general and former minister of economy, and the candidate of Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Former Israeli Consul General in New York Asaf Zamir is Huldai’s running mate, expected to return to his former job as deputy mayor if the incumbent is reelected.

Zamir, who resigned from his post in New York last year to protest the government’s judicial reform plan, agreed to Huldai’s offer for him to reenter the Tel Aviv political fray for the same reason.

“The trigger to run with Huldai was the judicial overhaul and the protests,” Zamir told JI. “There was a feeling that the inner war in Israel was putting Tel Aviv in a very important position as the central protest space and the base of the pro-democracy camp. As the most liberal city in Israel, it would be most affected [by the judicial plan].”

Since the Hamas attack, however, Zamir says the campaign has been at a standstill. 

“Until Oct. 7 I was going on podcasts, making videos, talking about parking, housing, education – that all stopped,” he said. “This is our last week [before the vote], and all we’ve done is put up posters saying ‘Tel Aviv will remain Tel Aviv,’ aka we’ll protect it…I meet people in the streets, sometimes my biggest supporters, and I know they support me, but they want to talk about other things.”

GOTHAM HALL, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2022/09/12: Israel Consul General to New York Asaf Zamir speaks during annual Jerusalem Post conference at Gotham Hall. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Zamir explained that “people’s priorities have shifted extremely. People are really afraid. Everyone has a brother or a cousin in Gaza. Not one person in Tel Aviv has not been personally affected by the war.”

The biggest campaign issue that he hears about from voters is “migun,” or “protection,” Zamir said, referring to adding reinforced safe rooms to protect schools and other structures from rockets in Tel Aviv, much of which was built before such measures were common. 

Huldai “has had to run Tel Aviv in wartime,” Zamir said. “He put tens of millions of shekels into building safe rooms for schools, moving 125 preschools [into buildings with reinforced rooms] and hosting 25,000 families from the north and south. They needed parking tags, some wanted to be integrated into our schools, some wanted to keep their schools separate and have tailor-made systems to adapt to their curriculum – it’s been a lot of real work regarding the war.” 

“Whoever isn’t doing those things is in a deficit,” Zamir said, referring to Huldai’s opponents. “I don’t envy people who have to run against us. [In a war], people stay with the existing regime as long as they’re good; people don’t have the time to think about a change.” 

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