Ahead of the April 9 election, there were many parties that brought in new talent and gave these candidates reserved slots on their lists. But former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat was the only one who had never been an MK and won a high slot in a party primary. He was ninth on the Likud list but is expected to be moved down a couple slots for the September 17 race, due to new acquisitions.
If the Likud forms the next government, Barkat is expected to become a minister. Though his portfolio remains unknown and his success as a hi-tech entrepreneur appears to have him earmarked for an economic ministry, Barkat, who was Jerusalem mayor for a decade, is seen as one of the few potential ministers who are knowledgeable about Diaspora affairs.
He has already been given an office in the Knesset that is reserved for ministers. In an interview in that office ahead of his appearance at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York Sunday, Barkat tried to explain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies to American Jewry.
When you meet with American Jews who ask about the Likud’s views on them, what do you say?
This is home for all Jews. It’s the only Jewish state and always will be. Regardless of people’s political opinions, this is beyond every political disagreement. Even in the Knesset, where there are many opinions, there is a consensus that it’s a Jewish state and we have to get along. My experience as mayor of Jerusalem taught me that many of the challenges that we face have to do with setting expectations and using the political system to bring about more unity.How can your experience as Jerusalem mayor help with that?
Jerusalem is a model. It’s not controversial that the city belongs to everyone: from Jews and non-Jews and secular to ultra-Orthodox, and everyone in between. Managing the city for a decade, there were always conflicts. Conflicts were not a bug but a feature. That is the nature of living in a city that belongs to all. Everyone must remember that we live in a place where no one gets everything they want. That’s why the words “status quo” are so important. It means there are issues we will never agree on, and we make compromises for living together under one roof.
I am a strong believer in the status quo. I can help ease conflicts by zooming in on the meaning of the status quo. If we do, we can zoom in on any conflict we want, and I’ll tell you how to manage it.
What do you say to progressive US Jews who are angry at Netanyahu?
One issue that is up in the air is the Kotel. As mayor, I saw the mismanagement of expectations. There is still work to do. The government passed a solution that it thought was supported by all sides that fell apart due to public opinion in the haredi and religious-Zionist side.
I think we will end up with something similar to that solution, because you have the religious and Supreme Court pushing in opposite directions. You will end up with a solution in which both sides are unhappy and which both sides have to live with, because those are the fundamentals to living in conflict. Both sides have more to lose for not accepting legal compromise. It’s complicated, but we will have to put this behind us. The religious and Reform are both right from where they’re coming from. Don’t explain why both sides are wrong. If there is no third element to the Kotel, the Supreme Court could change the status quo in the women’s section. There is no good solution, and in those situations, you have to live with compromise.
The Diaspora is waiting for Netanyahu to complete this delicate issue. The current Kotel should not be changed. We have to come to some kind of solution on the third section similar to what it is now. In Jerusalem, we residents get along. The problem is with the Diaspora and its expectations. No Jerusalemites complained to the mayor. I only heard about it in the international news.
What did you think about the Pew Research Center study that found that 64% of Americans have a favorable view of Israelis but 51% don’t like our government?
If you ask them about the American government, the responses are probably the same. They dislike both our government and their government.
If it is in part because of Netanyahu’s alliance with US President Donald Trump, how do you fix the impression that Netanyahu has abandoned Israel’s bipartisan relationship with the US?
The political ideologies of [former president Barack] Obama and Netanyahu were practically impossible to bridge. It was too wide a chasm to cross. That made the relationship tense. It wasn’t just personal, it was ideological. That was a big burden.
To credit President Obama, it didn’t affect support and military ties between Israel and the US. That could have happened. The status quo was kept on economy and military ties, when other things were tense.
I had a tough time dealing with Obama’s policies, as mayor of Jerusalem. Then we went from the “front wind” from Obama to wind at our backs from Trump. The ideology of Trump and his team is aligned with Netanyahu, as are their personal relations. That makes things move faster. Interests align when vectors go in the same direction. It’s unfortunate that this is the reality at a time of unfortunate polarization.
How are you preparing for your shift to national government?
I’ve been doing research, creating master plans for what to do as a minister from what I learned as an entrepreneur and mayor of Jerusalem. I hosted a conference on June 5 for economic plans for developing the North, South, and Judea and Samaria with Prof. Michael Porter from Harvard University. Our findings are quite dramatic.
I did this research because I care about my country. Thirty years from now, we will grow from nine to 17 million. If we do nothing, the population will overcrowd the Center, and it will be a strategic problem for the Center.
My goal is to work on elements. The first is economic, making these four regions attractive for families and entrepreneurs. Second: Differential funding for local governments to expand services and compete with the Center. Third: Communal life – groups of communities who want to live together. Fourth: Infrastructure and planning – how to scale cities, towns and moshavim to make them much bigger. All this is high on my agenda.
What is your vision for the Likud?
The party is very strong on the ground in the different regions. It’s grassroots, very ideological, with different threads and thoughts. Seventy thousand voters in the Likud primary created a strong team in the top 10 of very experienced people. I don’t think there’s a party in the world that doesn’t need to be refreshed, including America. It’s very dynamic, and we are ready to continue leading the country.What happens when Netanyahu goes, whether it’s in six months or six years?
Someone else will lead the country and move on. But Netanyahu has energy and experience, and for the party and country, the longer he is around is better for us, so I wish him long life as the head of both.What are your views on diplomatic issues ahead of the release of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century”?
What I am proposing may have huge ramifications on Judea and Samaria. I met with US mediator Jason Greenblatt. We spoke about different elements of helping Judea and Samaria: security and separation, civil autonomy and applying Israeli law to allow them to live like any residents. What I want to add to is to aggressively pursue mutual economies, pursuing economic growth with the model of the Barkan industrial zone, of Israelis and Palestinians working together under Israeli control. They will compete well with industrial zones in areas A and B that don’t have Jews. It gives them a competitive advantage and supplies jobs with wages that surpass the other areas. So for Judea and Samaria, we cannot escape the conclusion that we have to work together. We saw it in Jerusalem that when it rains, it rains on everyone.
Hear directly from Nir Barkat on June 16 at The Jerusalem Post annual conference
. Watch live at jpost.com
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