Mayor Moshe Lion talks Jerusalem Day to 'In Jerusalem'

Mayor Moshe Lion, a year and a half in the position, sounds rather optimistic and tells us why: what has changed already and what will change even more.

MAYOR MOSHE LION (center) and MK Ze’ev Elkin (second from left) cut the ribbon at the opening of a relief center for city businesses in mid-May. In attendance: Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (right) and city councilman Yehuda Ben-Yosef (left), who holds the city’s Business portfolio (photo credit: NOAM MORENO PHOTOGRAPHY/MAYOR’S OFFICE)
MAYOR MOSHE LION (center) and MK Ze’ev Elkin (second from left) cut the ribbon at the opening of a relief center for city businesses in mid-May. In attendance: Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (right) and city councilman Yehuda Ben-Yosef (left), who holds the city’s Business portfolio
The 53rd Jerusalem Day (today, May 22) will be very different from those that preceded it as the city continues to reel from the corona limitations and the dramatic economic blow that the situation has dealt to so many businesses and individuals.
Yet Mayor Moshe Lion, a year and a half in the position, sounds rather optimistic and tells us why: what has changed already and what will change even more. He shares his views on the major issues at stake in the coming months for the city as a whole, as well as for its east and west sides in particular, and their populations.
This year’s Jerusalem Day is arriving at a complicated time. Is it difficult for you?

The difficulties we face are of course not limited to Yom Yerushalayim; it has been like this since Purim. Back then, I was sure it would all be behind us by now, but we’ve reached Jerusalem Day and are still under a coronavirus siege, as we were during Purim, Passover and Independence Day. I believe that despite all the pain and inconvenience social distancing causes us, it is important, and we have to get used to it. That being said, we will still have on tap a few events adapted to the rules that don’t endanger the public, such as a Jerusalem song contest.
Residents of the east side of town and even some of the media have been praising your attitude and actions regarding the city’s Arab residents, even comparing you positively to legendary mayor Teddy Kollek. However, last week a survey by David Pollock of the Washington Institute showed a dramatic drop in the number of Arabs interested in Israeli citizenship. How do you explain this?
First of all, I have a problem with the credibility of these surveys. I don’t know how accurate it is, to me it doesn’t sound logical. Since I have been elected mayor, I have spent a significant amount of time in the east side speaking to the residents; I can tell you that they consider themselves an integral part of Jerusalem and see the municipality as responsible for their municipal needs and issues. Look, for example, at the sanitation issue on the eastern side – today I can tell you that cleanliness there is on par with the west side. So I prefer not to pay too much attention to any one poll.
If it were wholly in your hands, would you offer the option of Israeli citizenship to all the Arab residents?

Of course. I want Jerusalem to be one united city, and all its residents to be citizens of the State of Israel. I am opposed to any prejudice between residents. I think they all should be citizens and as far as I understand, that is also the goal of the deal of the century [US President Trump’s peace plan], so that Jerusalem becomes truly united, east and west both with the same status.
Would you encourage residents to live wherever they choose – Arabs on the west side and Jews in the east-side neighborhoods?
This is already happening. Jerusalem is divided into neighborhoods, with residents belonging to certain streams preferring to live in ares that best suit them, but yes, there are also mixed neighborhoods. In principle, any resident who wishes to live somewhere can do that. No one prevents it.
Let’s move to some more practical issues: What about the budget for 2020?
Well, I can give you good news here – we have a budget. I am closing the final issues with the Treasury.
Can you tell us anything about the special grant for Jerusalem this year? Everyone expects a significant cut due to the pandemic.

I can tell you that the grant is going to be higher than last year’s.
Last year’s special grant stood at NIS 950,000 million, so are we crossing the NIS 1 billion line?

Yes. It’s not that we have all the money we would like to have – we have expended a lot for this sanitation revolution across the city that I have led since I began my tenure, and we will need the same sums to continue keeping this city clean, but I am satisfied.
Can you give us insight into three of your major plans for next year?

First, sanitation, of course, together with development and construction: squares, sidewalks, roads and streets, benches, streetlights, parks... we will have many parks throughout the city, the first one is planned for Har Homa. My goal is to make Jerusalem the beautiful city that we dream of, so that Jerusalemites who step out of their home will see a beautiful city. Flowers, nice squares, clean and safe sidewalks – actually, we have gone beyond the stage of dreams already; we are achieving it on the ground. It will reach all the neighborhoods, not only the city center.
The second goal is education, I want education in Jerusalem to become the best possible. We have a very high level of achievement. The fact that figures always include all streams in the capital can distort the final picture somewhat, but when we check the educational results stream by stream, we see that Jerusalem has very high scores and results.
Culture is also one of my major goals. We have increased the budgets of cultural and art institutions. One of the challenges we now face is to rehabilitate the culture scene, which has been dealt a blow due to coronavirus.
Regarding local businesses, we do have a tremendous problem here. Hundreds if not more of small and medium businesses are in extreme distress – restaurants, bars, coffee shops. It’s a tragedy. I did what I could to ease things for them, like canceling rents and postponing tax payments, but still, many of them are close to total bankruptcy. Since it is clear that this coronavirus is going to continue to be here for a long time, or at least the concerns about it will, I understand it will be very difficult, if impossible, to fill up restaurants and coffee shops Accordingly, I have decided to allow full use of sidewalks across the city, and if needed, we will even block certain streets. This will enable more people to go to restaurants and sit outside free from fear of contamination.
Jerusalem is blessed with wonderful weather in the summer and beyond, so we are going to leverage it for the best. On top of this, there will be a series of arts and culture events along the streets in summer evenings.
Let's move to local politics. Arieh King has been appointed deputy mayor, causing concern among Meretz members. There was a vote and it could have ended with a decision to leave your coalition.
As you probably know, nobody is forced to be part of my coalition. Moreover, there was no surprise in this action – it was a part of the coalition agreement, also signed by Meretz. We’re beyond it by now. Also, please note that King does not get deputy salary.
Yes, but King as deputy mayor means final closing of the door on possible participation of Hitorerut in your coalition.
Not at all! The agreement with King says explicitly that if and when Hitorerut decides to join, he will free up the post.
There are rumors that you aim to cause a split inside Hitorerut to override party leader Ofer Berkovitch?

I am not trying to dismantle Hitorerut. I have a lot of friendship and respect for them. They are good people, doing good things for the city. The only problem in my view is that Ofer still cannot admit that I have been elected as mayor. But truly? I am so busy working for Jerusalem that I don’t have the time to think about it.
What, in your opinion, will the status of Jerusalem be if and when the Deal of the Century is implemented on an international level?

This plan, which I totally accept, will put an end to this issue of “west” and “east” in the city. This city should be totally united. We have to make it clear that this the end of any hesitation – Jerusalem’s status now is stable and strong, it will only be stronger with this agreement. It will remove any lingering skepticism or doubt.
If truly united, how about the municipality supporting arts and culture programs and projects in the Arab side? How about a local theater there budgeted by the municipality?

So far no one has come to me to request such a thing; if there is such a demand, I am here. Since I became mayor, whatever they ask they receive. And they deserve it – it is their right to get all of the funding necessary; I will personally see to it. If there is a demand for a theater, then there will be such. In my eyes, there is no difference between a theater on the east side or west side.
What is your wish for Jerusalemites on Jerusalem Day?

First of all, health. Then economic strength. This is what I want to achieve.
Also I believe that in the coming months we will see a boost in aliyah, and we are preparing ourselves for that.