Meir Margalit, the city councilor from Meretz who now holds the east Jerusalem portfolio, is in the unique position of advocating for a part of the city he hopes will eventually not be part of Israel.
Margalit, who detractors have accused of being “anti-Zionist,” is the first radically left-wing city councilor to ever hold the portfolio, and openly says his goal is to divide the city.
Margalit started his new role on Sunday, after Meretz gained control of the portfolio as part of the agreement that brought the party back into the coalition, after nearly a year as the opposition.
In an in-depth interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Margalit shared his hopes for the next two-and-ahalf years of his term, as well as the difficulties he has faced within the radical left-wing movement, which has criticized his decision to cooperate with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as a member of the coalition.
“I want to do justice for the residents of east Jerusalem,” said Margalit. “They are 36 percent of the city, but they don’t get the services, or the education, or the social services they need. You don’t need to go through the narrow alleyways to understand how much this area is neglected,” the Argentina-born politician said on Tuesday, sporting his customary uniform of jeans and a polo shirt, with a few days of stubble.
Margalit sees his job as two-pronged: primarily, to ensure that the resources already earmarked for the eastern part of the city arrive at their destination, and that the funds are put to use in a meaningful way, and secondly, to advance his political agenda to help east Jerusalem create the infrastructure that it needs to break away from Israel and become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Margalit’s vision for the future of Jerusalem is a city that is physically united – without a separation wall – but functions as two separate entities: Israeli and Palestinian.
Those views have raised red flags among right-wing activists in Jerusalem.
“It’s problematic he believes east Jerusalem is occupied land, and Israel has no right over this land and no sovereignty,” said City Councilor Elisha Peleg (Likud).
Peleg also faulted Margalit for aiding Arab residents who build illegally after part of their house has been demolished, and cooperating with the European Union and UN commissions that aim to harm Israel.
“He claims that everywhere the law is different from his conscience, his conscience trumps the importance of the law,” said Peleg.
“This is a negative development for Jerusalem, to appoint someone to the very important post of portfolio of looking over east Jerusalem who ideologically wants to get rid of east Jerusalem is like leaving the cat guard the milk,” said Chaim Silberstein, founder and president of the conservative-advocacy group Keep Jerusalem.
Silberstein called the mayor’s decision to give the portfolio to Meretz “insanity,” and warned that Margalit’s “extremist” views would actually make it more difficult for him to get anything done because he would alienate other moderate members of the city council.
Margalit dismissed the criticism, saying that the condemnations from right-wing activists “go in one ear and out the other.”
What really troubled him though, he said, was the criticism he received from close friends in the radical left who believe any kind of cooperation with the municipality and Barkat is a type of betrayal of core values.
“It’s hard for me that some of my good friends don’t see this in a good light. I’m not insensitive to their criticism,” he said. “It’s hard for me to stand in front of my leftist friends while they claim that I was chosen for this in order to assist the right-wingers.”
Still, Margalit is optimistic that he’ll be more effective working from within the municipality, rather than attacking it from the outside.
“I am aware that the mayor and the rightists will try to exploit me... I will need to be very aware to make sure this doesn’t happen,” he said.
Nonetheless, the decision to take the portfolio was never in question.
“It would be really irresponsible of me not to utilize this historical opportunity,” he said. “The mayor hasn’t changed his politics, he didn’t change his ideology, he invited us [Meretz] because he needed to – that’s how politics works.”
The first action Margalit wants to pursue is to scrutinize the current budget and determine exactly how much of the budget is earmarked for east Jerusalem, in order to raise it to a level that more closely mirrors the city’s demography.
“The best estimate is that 10% of the city’s budget goes to east Jerusalem,” he said, noting that no one knew how much money was actually destined for the eastern part of the city. But it should be closer to the 30%, since Arabs in east Jerusalem account for more than a third of the city’s residents, he explained.
He also wants to promote more projects such as the recently failed initiative in Al Suhawra, which would have retroactively legalized and given permits for 2,500 housing units.
Margalit replaces Yakir Segev, from Barkat’s Jerusalem Will Succeed party. Segev’s east Jerusalem portfolio was to advocate both for the Arab residents of east Jerusalem and the Jewish residents who live in predominantly Arab neighborhoods.
Margalit refused to represent these populations, so the east Jerusalem portfolio will now be divided into two separate portfolios. City Councilor David Hadari (HaBayit Hayehudi) will receive a new portfolio to work with Jewish residents of east Jerusalem, in addition to holding the financial portfolio.
Hadari, who is expected to receive the portfolio after a vote at the next city council meeting, said he would have preferred that the east Jerusalem portfolio stay with a single person. He added that he abstained from the vote that awarded Margalit the east Jerusalem portfolio because he found Margalit’s personal opinions “troubling.”
Still, Hadari said he did not believe that Margalit would be able to make much progress in his desire to divide the city.
“He signed a document that said Jerusalem is a united city [that was required when Meretz members who rejoined the coalition],” said Hadari. “We won’t allow him to do things that damage the coalition.”
Margalit’s political journey has been complicated, and roundabout as well.
He made aliya from Argentina in 1972 at age 20, and then joined the
Nahal Betar Brigade and helped found the Gaza settlement of Netzarim.
After being wounded in the Yom Kippur War, Margalit began to shift his
views towards the left during his long recovery.
He co-founded the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions in 1997,
and has been a vocal activist in east Jerusalem human-rights
organizations and a regular fixture at demonstrations. He also served as
a city councilor for Meretz from 1998 to 2002.
Along with Meretz City Councilor Pepe Alalu, Margalit attends almost
every major protest organized by the city’s left-wing movements.
Margalit acknowledged that holding the east Jerusalem portfolio as a
member of the coalition on the inside will present a new set of
“I’ve never done this type of experiment before,” he said. “There are a lot of dangers, and a lot of possibilities.”