One on one: Capital countdown

Mayoral hopeful Nir Barkat's platform focuses on economics, not politics.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
August 13, 2008 21:51
One on one: Capital countdown

barkat view of walls 248 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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Nir Barkat arrives at his office in Jerusalem's German Colony with his cellphone at his ear, pulling a briefcase on wheels. The 49-year-old entrepreneur-turned-city pol looks different from the last time I saw him. His trademark baby face looks more mature, somehow, slightly weathered. It's as though the past five years - since running for mayor in 2003 and losing to Uri Lupolianski - have taken their toll. Or perhaps it is the strain of the final lap of his current campaign that is beginning to show. What Barkat exudes is a mixture of confidence and anxiety. The latter is likely the general angst of any candidate watching the sand slip through the hourglass toward Judgment Day (in this case November 12); and the more particular one, connected to Barkat's specific concern that the non-haredi majority of Jerusalem's Jewish residents will not reverse their former pattern of low voter turnout. The former feels to the observer like the kind of self-assurance born of experience. This may seem paradoxical, since Barkat did not win the last mayoral race. On the other hand, as a newcomer on the local political scene - with a fledgling faction called "Jerusalem Will Succeed" - he did garner an astonishing 43 percent of the votes, causing his to become the second largest party represented on the city council. And starting new enterprises is what Barkat is all about, as his record reflects. Among other accomplishments, Barkat cofounded the BRM Group, which developed anti-virus software and expanded it into a technological incubator for the likes of BackWeb and Checkpoint; cofounded BRM Capital, investing in Israeli hi-tech companies to enable them to enter the global market; and helped establish the popular Hebrew education site Snunit. Then there are the nonprofits he's associated with, such as StartUp Jerusalem (to stimulate economic growth) and New Spirit (a student organization to strengthen the ties of young people to their city). That his financial situation is sound clearly enabled the married father of three who lives in Beit Hakerem to resign from his business responsibilities, and focus full-time on his municipal duties - and ambitions. "It is my calling to lift the fog over the city," he asserts, referring not to air pollution, but rather to what he sees as shameful stagnation. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he would not be running in the Kadima primaries. On the local level, MK Meir Porush - from Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski's United Torah Judaism party - was selected as his faction's candidate for mayor. As a member of Kadima running for the mayoralty of Jerusalem, how do these two events affect your activity and strategy? In the first place, I'm not active in Kadima. I am completely focused on putting my vision for the city of Jerusalem into practice. And those events you mention do not affect me in the least. I am out in the field examining the problems of the city and working tirelessly to come up with solutions for them. What problems are unique to Jerusalem? One key problem is the exodus out of the city. Some 17,000 Jews leave Jerusalem every year, a good portion of whom are from the middle and upper-middle classes - young people with potential. This is a strategic danger for the existence of Jerusalem. Fifteen years ago, the government determined that Jerusalem would remain at least 70 percent Jewish. Today, we are at 65%. The pace of emigration and the decrease in Jew-Arab ratio is a threat to the Jewish majority in the city. When you talk about the exodus from the city, are you including those families who move to the suburbs - such as Mevaseret? The exodus is partly to the suburbs, and partly to the center of the country. Incidentally, I do think we have to start talking about a greater Jerusalem that includes its satellite cities. But the capital is weakened even by those who move to places like Mevaseret, because some of those people don't work or vote in Jerusalem, and in the meantime, aren't counted as Jerusalemites. Why are so many Jerusalemites leaving? There are four main reasons. The first has to do with making a living. The average annual wage in Jerusalem is $16,000. In the center of the country, it's closer to $24,000. So, when young people don't find work here - or when they earn low wages - they leave. The second is the price of apartments that is so high that young people, even if they are employed, have trouble affording them. The third has to do with education. In the past, Jerusalem was a draw in this realm. Today that's no longer the case. And those whose kids who don't get accepted to quality schools here go elsewhere. The fourth is connected to poor municipal services, such as street cleaning, transportation, culture and sports facilities. So, what can we expect? The "customers" vote with their feet. The one thing you didn't mention is the perception that Jerusalem is growing increasingly haredi. Is this perception based in reality? The reality is that Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski is haredi, and he and others around him think in terms of sectors, rather than having a comprehensive outlook. This is reflected in the way they allocate resources. For example, for the past four years, the budget for culture has been NIS 5 million. Now that elections are approaching, that figure has jumped to NIS 10 million. But, in Tel Aviv - which has half the population of Jerusalem - it's NIS 80 million. In Rishon Lezion, it's more than NIS 110 million. This creates an atmosphere that makes the non-haredi population feel unwanted in the city - and many people leave because of this. A comprehensive approach means taking everyone into account, including, but not exclusively, the haredim. This isn't happening today. In this respect, the perception of "haredization" is correct, and that has to be changed. During Olmert's tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, he was often accused of succumbing to haredi pressure in the city council and of not putting enough emphasis on culture. Does this mean that it doesn't matter whether the mayor is haredi or not, because the end result is the same? During Olmert's tenure, the haredim who sat in his coalition - in which he was in the minority - applied enormous pressure on him to take care of their narrow needs. It is wrong to succumb to such pressure. The right thing to do is look out for the interests of all the sectors - Arab, haredi, national religious, secular, whatever - as equitably as possible. Isn't that easier said than done? If you are elected mayor, won't you be in exactly the same situation as Olmert was - with pressure from the haredim in your coalition? Given the population of Jerusalem, could you or any other mayor withstand that pressure? I believe so. But for that, one has to have political power. So, the Jerusalem public has to understand that if it doesn't translate its desires into political power for a mayor who intends to have a much more equitable distribution of resources - both in the elections for mayor and for the city council - it will be much harder. We have reached the point at which the majority has begun to think like a minority. Haredim are actually a minority in Jerusalem, as they make up only 30% of its Jewish population. But because they are united and exercise their right to vote, they receive more than their share of proportional representation. Of the remaining 70% of the non-haredi Jewish population, only four out of 10 turn out to vote for mayor. So, it's no wonder that the results are as they are. To what do you attribute the low voting rate among the non-haredi population? I know that's about to change. The good news is that the public knows that it has to bring its feelings to the ballot box in much higher numbers, otherwise what has happened to us in the last five years will happen again. During these five years, the city's potential was set back, not forward. The starting point that I as a potential mayor have is much farther behind than it would have been for me five years ago, on every level. You speak of a poor allocation of resources. How would you do things differently? I see the mayor's job as not only managing the resources of the municipality. The mayor of Jerusalem is a figure who has to raise a significant amount of funds from the private sector as well. A mayor who knows how to talk to the private sector is critical for the city's success. In order to bring business to Jerusalem - serious international businesses that provide hundreds and thousands of jobs - a lot has to be done. You know, before opening up branches in Jerusalem, business people ask those who are already here what it's like doing business here. They ask for "references." And you know what they are told? "Don't come here." One of many things the haredi system and mayor don't understand is how to talk to the private sector - how to roll out the red carpet for industry. The current system views businesses as a golden calf for arnona [city taxes] revenue, rather than a catalyst for growth and development. Today, no one even holds a business portfolio in the municipality. Nor has a finance committee met here for four years! Today, if an entrepreneur wants to open a business in Jerusalem, he has no address in the municipality to turn to. I come from the private sector, so I know what I'm talking about, and I also know how to talk to the business community. Another valuable resource is philanthropy. Teddy Kollek marketed Jerusalem to the world as the "city of yesterday and tomorrow." During his tenure, billions of shekels were raised to develop every aspect of the city. When Olmert was mayor, on the other hand, his strategy was to focus on physical infrastructure. I think this was a mistake - because building an unnecessary bridge and a light rail doesn't encourage or generate philanthropy. What he did, then, was to raise a lot of government funding for those projects. As for Mayor Lupolianski: He has nothing to sell. Jews abroad don't even know who he is. Why do you consider the bridge "unnecessary," and what's wrong with building a light rail system? The bridge and the light rail were born in sin. Both are more of a gimmick than a solution to any of the city's real problems. Let's start with the bridge. Not only is it completely unnecessary, but it will end up costing NIS 250-NIS 300 million. And the claims that it will boost tourism - like the Eiffel Tower or the Brooklyn Bridge - are not only ridiculous, they also detract from the character of Jerusalem. It spits in the face of the city's residents. And the city could do much better things with all that money. This is not to say that aesthetics aren't important - though, personally, I don't think the bridge is particularly attractive - but we're not talking about some pretty placard or flowers. We're talking about NIS 300 million! As for the light rail: Transportation is not something that can be planned from one day to the next; it has to be planned 20 years in advance. The railway is a small solution to a small problem. We need proper solutions to much larger problems. For example, to handle masses of tourists, we need subways. Another problem with the light rail is that, because it is not economical, instead of its serving the residents of the city, they will have to serve it. It's Chelm. One possible solution - aside from a subway system - is to use fast buses. This would be much more efficient, and it wouldn't mean waiting until 2012 for it to be ready. Furthermore, the way it is now is no way to build tracks. There is no reason why, in the lanes where the tracks are complete, buses can't be allowed to drive on and over them. There's no reason not to have duality. The whole planning was faulty. And the residents are the ones who are suffering. Will the light rail system be hard to protect from terrorism? Yes. Trains are hard to monitor. I don't want to be more specific, for obvious reasons. You say that aesthetics are important. What is your view of the Safdie Plan - to build housing on open green spaces - rejected by the National Planning Council in February 2007? Creating the right balance of construction and greenery is very important in any city. In light of the exodus of young people out of the city, the thinking was that the best thing to do would be to build new neighborhoods inside the city. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to build on open green space to the west. This is mistaken thinking. What Jerusalem needs is tzifuf - taller buildings at greater concentration in certain neighborhoods - far away from the Old City, because of the view. Not like the Holyland apartments, a poorly planned eyesore. Building upward is harder to implement, but it's worth it, both for the residents and the economy. It also enables preserving greenery. This is why it makes much more sense to connect west Jerusalem to its satellites: Ma'aleh Adumim in the east; Gush Etzion in the south; Givat Ze'ev in the north. You mention arnona. We Jerusalemites have the sense that we pay exorbitant city taxes without receiving much in return. Why is that? You're right. Jerusalem is in a trap, because it has high taxes and has become the poorest city in the country. One reason for this is that in Jerusalem, only one in three job-seekers is employed. In Haifa, it is two out of three; in Tel Aviv it's three out of three. This ratio affects arnona. The Jerusalem Municipality has to constantly raise the arnona in order to pay for a city that's taking an economic nosedive. This is instead of generating more business-related arnona. Arnona makes up a small portion of a business's expenses, but when a business's income isn't great, arnona becomes a serious burden. The municipality of Jerusalem doesn't know how to efficiently generate money from the business sector. Another reason is simply bad management. For example, every year there is a discussion of how much money has to be put into managing the city, yet there is never a discussion of outcomes. And there is no examination of what worked and what didn't, or how to improve things. The municipality isn't interested in goals. This is because the mayor and his associates are afraid to admit to any failures. Therefore, there is never any attempt to correct them. All we ever hear from the mayor is how good things are. Every Jerusalemite knows that this isn't so. Speaking of not admitting to failure, in his resignation speech, Olmert said that the country is in better shape than ever, due to his policies - one of which is putting the division of Jerusalem on the table. You came out against this. You also talk about economic growth through the private sector as the solution to the city's problems. Though you are a member of Kadima, you sound closer to opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu in your worldview. Are you going to end up in the Likud? As I said before, in practice, I'm not in Kadima. Jerusalem is my banner. I am outside of party politics. My vision and platform is the strengthening of Jerusalem. And I was open in my criticism of Kadima for going against its own platform, which includes a united Jerusalem. I am very disappointed in Kadima for this, and said so. That's why I'm not there. Beyond that, Jerusalem needs a leader who is not associated with any particular party. Is that possible in a country like this - and in a city like Jerusalem? Absolutely. We need unity, not factionalism. A majority of the Jewish population supports a united Jerusalem. And even a large portion of the Arab population prefers to live under Israeli sovereignty - with economic growth - than under a corrupt Palestinian leadership. What is the very first thing you would do as mayor, the day after the elections? I would first put together a political and professional staff completely committed to my platform. And to resuscitate an economic section to deal with businesses, and to reform the whole process of licensing, to enable businesses to register within a day. All it requires is a change in attitude and perception. Today, the municipal system works like the army, and it has to operate like a business. I view business people as my clients. If the client isn't satisfied, he will go elsewhere. In the army, there's no client, there's an enemy against whom you are at war. And in a war, your job is to defeat the enemy. The municipality sometimes behaves as though it's out to defeat the business community. This is a phenomenon that has to be eradicated, just as change is something that has to be made to happen. The potential is there. It's just waiting to be tapped.

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