“The city is undergoing a cultural renaissance,” says Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat – Photo: Lior Mizrahi
He declined to provide further details, but added that he later heard that those same anonymous wheeler-dealers had ended up supporting another candidate.
* * * *
Earlier this week, sitting in the living room of his Jerusalem home in the neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, I tried to confront Barkat and find out more about the content of those private conversations. Barkat, as expected, spoke with great caution.
“I was asked to make appointments that I was not prepared to make, because my commitment is not to the political system, and not to this or that individual, but only to the residents of the city. Maybe some people want to go back to the way things once were. It won’t happen with me,” he says.
Recently, an alarming study suggested that one out of every 10 Israelis who file a request for a construction permit also offer a bribe along the way. Court records reveal that at least some of the clerks working in Jerusalem have been apprehended and prosecuted for such crimes. This study was even more significant in light of the recent Holyland affair (overg the construction of the enormous Holyland housing complex in the city), which saw two former Jerusalem mayors — Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski — investigated on suspicion of taking bribes in exchange for advancing the project.
“Fortunately,” Barkat says with half a smile, “the fool who can convince me to take a bribe has not been born yet.”
“Every suspicion has been fully investigated,” he says. “I encourage anyone who wants to complain of corruption to come forward. They will get my full support as well as the support of the entire city mechanism, the prosecution and the police.”
Barkat prefers not to expand on Moshe Lion, the candidate running against him in the upcoming mayoral election.
“I have been a resident of this city for 53 years. My children grew up here. I have proved myself in the private sector, and I have proved myself in the public sector as well in the last five years. If you want, you can describe me now as a ‘public entrepreneur,'” he says.
Lion, Barkat adds, is not a resident of the city. In Barkat’s view, this makes his opponent, a one-time director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office (during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in 1996), unsuitable for the position of Jerusalem mayor. Barkat argues that bringing a candidate in from outside the city doesn’t look good.
“Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are,” Barkat says.
“Any semi-intelligent person knows that this is a case of someone hooking someone else up with a job — a political deal intended to advance personal agendas.
“If that is not the case, then please explain to me why they went for a non-Jerusalem resident. I am from Jerusalem. Today, tomorrow, always. For me, Jerusalem is not a political appointment or a job — it is my life’s mission. For 12 years [as a city councilman before becoming mayor] I have been working for a salary of one shekel per year. Every day I wake up in the morning with only one thing driving me: the privilege of serving Jerusalem.”
Five years ago, Barkat went up against Meir Porush — currently an MK on behalf of United Torah Judaism — and Russian-Israeli businessman Arcadi Gaydamak for the position of mayor. Gaydamak was viewed as a bit of an oddity in the Israeli political landscape: Despite his financial contributions during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and despite having purchased the city’s soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, he won only 10,000 votes. Barkat, on the other hand, got 117,000 votes — 52 percent of the total — and won the election.
During the campaign, an internal conflict within the ultra-Orthodox community prompted the prominent Gerer hassidim to shift their support from Porush to Barkat. At that point, the gap between Barkat and Porush stood at 24,000 votes, so clearly that was not the reason for Barkat’s victory (contrary to claims made by Lieberman). The reason, apparently, was the high secular turnout as well as the changes Barkat had effected within the national religious sector.
“In the past, the national religious population would generally vote for the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] candidates,” Barkat explains. “But now, the trend has completely reversed.” Proving his point, Barkat presents the latest poll, which suggests that about 80% of the national religious population supports his candidacy.
In the last election, Barkat’s victory was achieved in part by a clear, precise campaign, warning voters of the danger that a haredi mayor would pose to the character of the city. The campaign suggested that Porush wanted to win the mayor’s post to impose his vision on the city. Today, things are a little more complicated. Barkat faces Lion, who is not haredi but does have the support of the haredim as well as the support of the political wheeler-dealers — double support that Barkat sees as a double threat.
Q: Does the deal between Lieberman and Deri possess any real power?
“It is a back-channel deal that the public isn’t buying. The residents of Jerusalem are smart enough to see things as they really are. This deal is based on an antiquated worldview that may be more suitable for party primaries or shady transactions.”
When Barkat is asked whether he was concerned about the possibility of the haredi rabbis joining forces and collectively supporting a different candidate, he focuses his stare and reminds the inquirer that the combined force that exists in Jerusalem, and should be the force driving it, is a Zionist combination of secular, traditional and religious Zionist individuals who, according to his account, support him unwaveringly. What about the haredim? Many of them are also rooting for him, he notes, adding that he has never deprived any sector in the city.
According to Likud sources, last week Likud Director-General Gadi Arieli called Lion and asked him to remove the Likud-Beytenu logo from his campaign posters. Lion has been endorsed by Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beytenu, and enjoys the support of certain Likud activists in Jerusalem, but he has not been officially endorsed by Netanyahu, who is Likud chairman as well as prime minister.
In addition, after Barkat, the party list includes a number of well-known Jerusalem Likud members: Kobi Kahlon, the brother of former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon; successful supermarket owner and businessman Rami Levy; and Meir Turjeman, a well-known figure and, up until recently, an opponent of Barkat’s. Likud officials have decided not to hold a primary election to select a municipal candidate for the Jerusalem election and to refrain from running any candidates. So far, Netanyahu has not endorsed any of the candidates.
Meanwhile, to make it harder for Netanyahu to support Barkat, a local Likud branch has recently spearheaded a motion, filed with the party’s top steering committee, to approve the merger between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu in the Jerusalem municipal elections. The decision is still pending the approval of the Likud’s legal adviser, followed by Netanyahu’s approval. If it passes, and Likud ends up selecting a candidate, this candidate will run on behalf of both Likud and Yisrael Beytenu.
Why has Netanyahu so far avoided publicly endorsing you?
“I’ll start by saying that my relationship with him is excellent. He has remarked, more than once, that he is very pleased with the changes that this city is undergoing. He is a resident of Jerusalem; he knows the city. His wife is here, and his children are growing up here. I enjoy the prime minister’s full support for the welcome changes happening in the city. The secret of the success of these changes is the cooperation between the government and the municipality. This is an opportunity for me to thank him for the support and the resources. He has also said very clearly that he does not endorse Moshe Lion. Will it go any further than that? That is up to him.”
And thus, local and national politics collide. Jerusalem, because of its significance and centrality as Israel’s capital, has never remained solely within the bounds of local politics. Barkat’s and Netanyahu’s joint course began many years ago. Barkat has voiced his faith in Netanyahu’s ability to keep Jerusalem united many times along the way. Now that Netanyahu has relaunched peace talks with the Palestinians, raising once again core issues like the unity of Jerusalem for debate, Barkat continues to give Netanyahu his complete support. As everyone knows, Barkat has been very consistent in his strong opposition to dividing the city or handing over any part of its municipal territory to the Palestinians.
“I am not concerned,” he says. “I know what the prime minister’s position is, and what the government’s position is, and of course what the majority of the public thinks about the centrality and unity of the city under any future deal, if there is such a deal.”
How do you propose handling the Palestinian designs on Jerusalem?
“If the deal collapses because it hinges on the Jerusalem issue, so be it. It is better not to make any deal than to agree to a bad deal,” Barkat says.
Jerusalem is the largest city in Israel. It possesses enormous economic potential, and its main growth engine rests on tourism. Some 4 million foreign tourists visit Jerusalem every year. The prime minister and the mayor have an identical goal: to raise the number of annual tourists to 10 million. Tourism represents the creation of jobs in a variety of areas and helps the city deal with the unflattering statistics indicating high rates of poverty in certain parts — parts in which the state invests very few resources in efforts to improve.
This obviously affects the municipality, which, at the end of the day, ends up bearing the cost of the municipal tax exemptions handed out by the state to a relatively large portion of the population in the city. These exemptions amount to around 550 million shekels ($155 million) in lost municipal revenue annually, and the state does not compensate the municipality for this loss.
“The state decided that certain people, with lower socio-economic status, are exempt from paying municipal tax. I accept that. But the state needs to compensate the city so that it can close the consequent gap,” Barkat says. Even though there is still no state compensation, Barkat boasts a balanced municipal budget.
A connection between the past and the future
Barkat’s vision for the next five years is a new master plan focusing on unemployment and public transportation. He plans to build an enormous commercial center at the entrance to the city, the planning stage of which lasted three years and is now in the final stages of approval. The center will contain a million square meters (10.7 million square feet) in 13 35-story towers. The development cost is assessed at 1.2 billion shekels. In Barkat’s vision, the center will be inaugurated at around the same time as the new fast rail connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Also in the works: the development of two light rail lines — costing 15 billion shekels ($340 million) — in addition to the line that is currently in service. This time, he promises, all the ills of the existing line will have been eliminated, and the development will be overseen by the city rather than an external company. Currently, in a city with a population of 800,000 people and tens of thousands of visitors and commuters, the light-rail train hosts some 130,000 passengers every day. The planned new lines will link Gilo to Givat Ram to French Hill and the Mount of Olives. A cable car will then take passengers from the Mount of Olives to the Western Wall and continue to the German Colony.
Barkat continues to make the case for what he believes is his successful mayoral term: During his term, the “First Station” (a central entertainment, culture and enrichment hub located in the old train station plaza) was built and Park Hamesila (Train Track Park) was established, as was the Jerusalem Arena adjacent to Teddy Stadium. The Beit Mazia theater was renovated, as was Hansen Hospital (once known as the Lepers’ Home). Park Teddy was also built.
“Change starts first and foremost with the atmosphere,” Barkat explains, immediately mentioning the changes that are currently apparent on the ground. In education, for example, there has been an increase in the number of students enrolled in public and religious public schools. Just this year, 26 new preschools have been opened in the religious Zionist sector. Barkat lifted district restrictions (no longer requiring children to enroll in institutions only in their district) allowing 89% of parents to enroll their children in the schools they wished.
Barkat becomes particularly emotional when he talks about the flourishing cultural scene in the city.
“Jerusalem’s cultural centers have gone from survival mode to blossoming. Jerusalem is experiencing a cultural renaissance,” he says.
“Residents of Jerusalem understand what a profound change culture has effected in this city in terms of atmosphere, quality of life and the economy. One of the reasons for the growth in the city is that Jerusalem has restored its role as a city of culture. We have surpassed Tel Aviv in terms of the number of cultural events, and today, the road to Jerusalem is no longer a one-way street.”
Moshe Lion’s headquarters responds
Lion’s campaign headquarters issued a response saying that “Barkat chased after the haredim in the last election, and it was thanks to them that he won. He continues to woo them today with unprecedented promises worth tens of millions of shekels. At his meeting with Aryeh Deri on June 24, Barkat offered a list of promises to the haredi sector, like the position of deputy mayor and the independence of haredi education. Even Barkat’s deputy, Yitzhak Pindrus of United Torah Judaism, said that Barkat has given the haredim more than any mayor before him.
“For five years, Moshe Lion worked as the chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority, working closely with Barkat, and he saw up close [Barkat’s] unsuccessful conduct and his disconnection from the residents of the city. Some 90,000 residents have left the city during his term. In education, there has been a decline of dozens of percentage points in eligibility for matriculation exams. The city is ranked 135th in the Meitzav list [a national education index]. The city suffers from dirt and neglect, and in the transportation department, the residents suffer from degraded roads and terrible parking problems. In addition, the price of housing has risen in the city more than any other city in the country.”
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=11273