Kahlon and Barkat.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It may sound like déjà vu to some, but the openly declared war between Mayor Nir Barkat and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) may end in some heavy losses this time.
In a dramatic announcement issued on Tuesday by the municipality, Barkat stated that as of Sunday (January 29), the city of Jerusalem will be on total strike (except, for now, the schools).
Once again, like last year during this period, the conflict is about money – whether involving, as declared mostly off the record by Treasury staff and some Kulanu MKs – Barkat’s refusal to clarify what the additional budget will be used for. Or according to the official voice of Safra Square, that although the sum Barkat requested has been approved, the Treasury is trying to get the money from the government ministers involved instead of simply turning on the tap at the Treasury and sending the money.
What has brought things to this dramatic stage is the fact that until this issue is solved, the government, through the Treasury, will not approve the city’s budget for 2017. This means that the city will remain without a budget as of next month. In practice, this means that as of Sunday, garbage will not be cleared from the streets, there will be no reception for the public in the municipal departments, no committees will meet and, in fact, almost no municipal services will be provided. The bright side is that fines for parking offenses will not be implemented; but considering the garbage that will be overtaking the streets, there is no cause for celebration.
Being the country’s largest – and poorest – city, neither the government nor the municipality is arguing that the capital should obtain large grants and get a large budget approval. For years, the government has agreed to open the state coffers and give money, but Barkat says that this should not be an annual ritual but a decision rooted in the budget of the city.
After last year’s street fighting on the matter, which took on a personal tone between the mayor and Kahlon, this time coalition members have requested that nothing personal should appear. No posters, no personal campaigns and nothing that could divide the solidarity among the parties in the coalition on the city council – just a loud and clear request to actualize a budget to serve the real needs of the city and its residents.
For now, a few days before the city’s budget has to be approved and implemented for this year, nothing is clear. Barkat says that while on one hand his requests have been officially approved by Kahlon, high-ranking Treasury staff simply are not freeing up the money. According to sources in the Kulanu party the word is that Kahlon fears that Barkat is going to use the funds for purposes and projects that will enhance his popularity, in view of his plans to move on to national politics.
A spokesman for Barkat maintains there is no such problem, only the fact that Kahlon is trying to take some of these tremendous sums – NIS 800,000 – from the various government offices involved (such as education, culture and sport) instead of simply ruling that the Treasury should immediately deposit the money in Jerusalem’s coffers. On top of that, Barkat is expecting to get a loan to finance the building of 1,000 new classrooms in the public education system.
In a letter to Kahlon, Barkat called on him to get personally involved in the situation and put an end to it, stressing that “it is unacceptable that today, as the eyes of the world are turned towards Jerusalem and the new administration in Washington is planning to move the embassy here, the city is on the verge of collapsing financially instead of being consolidated.”
A Treasury spokesman responded, “The government helps the municipality, in billions of shekels, using all the tools available.
“In the last decade alone, the government has approved development projects of NIS 2.5 billion to strengthen to the city. In 2016 alone, the Treasury granted NIS 500 million to finance activities in the muncipality’s departments. The Treasury is acting to stabilize the budget and even increase it by 5%, compared to last year’s NIS 499m.
“The Treasury helps the municipality with all possible measures and in the state budget for 2017-2018, the ‘grant for the capital’ approved by the government and the Knesset is an additional NIS 320m. In light of the commitment of all of the ministries to help the Jerusalem Municipality, it was suggested they work together with the Treasury to pool together the budget surplus to the tune of NIS 200m. from of all the relevant ministries.
“In view of all this, it is not understood on what grounds the mayor is threatening a general strike.”
Whether this is just another chapter in the ongoing saga of bad blood between Barkat and the Kahlons (the minister and his brother Kobi, a former deputy mayor of Barkat’s), as hinted by people close to minister Kahlon, or simply an unacceptable case of bad management, the result will be – as is too often the case – a lot of inconvenience and disorder in the city.