At the end of his well-attended press conference at which he discussed his plans for the El-Bustan section of Silwan about four months ago, Mayor Nir Barkat admitted that he was genuinely moved and excited. Addressing the local, national and foreign press, Barkat revealed his plan to allow residents of the upper side of the Silwan neighborhood, also known as Gan Hamelech (King’s Garden), to obtain retroactive building permits for their houses. To create the El-Bustan tourist park in Gan Hamelech, he would grant permits for 66 of the 88 illegal structures built there during the early 1990s and demolish 22 others, whose owners would be allowed to rebuild them on the opposite side of the valley.

The icing on the cake, at least for Barkat and the Jewish residents of Silwan, would have been a belated but crucial permit not to demolish – or seal – the last three illegal stories of the Beit Yehonatan building in which six Jewish families reside.

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Despite all his efforts to present his plan as the first one to take into consideration the Arab residents’ needs and living conditions in the neighborhood while enforcing the law against illegal construction in east Jerusalem, the plan was not welcomed, to put it mildly, by the media or the US administration.


Last week the plan was approved by the local Planning and Construction Committee. It could take several years for the plan to be approved by the district committee, if at all. After the plan was approved, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Mon called it “an illegal plan,” State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that the White House viewed Barkat’s plan as one that “undermines the trust” needed for progress in negotiations with the Palestinians and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the plan “lacked common sense” and “a sense of timing.”

“The King’s Garden project, which has waited for 3,000 years, can wait another three to nine months if the state’s policy considerations necessitate it,” Barak said. He added that upon his return from the US, he planned to take the matter up with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Barak’s criticism had already received a strong response from the municipality last Tuesday with a statement from the mayor’s office suggesting that Barak “check the facts” before censuring the project: “Rather than support the municipality’s efforts to strengthen the city and tackle the serious neglect east Jerusalem has inherited over the years, the defense minister acts without checking the facts,” the statement read.

Yet at the end of the press conference on March 2, Barkat’s chief of staff and closest assistant for years, Michal Shalem, declared, “Today Nir has proven that he is not only a successful mayor but also a real leader.”

Shalem meant that Barkat, just over a year at the helm of the city, was getting closer to the man he always claimed was his role model – Teddy Kollek. However, for a few observers in the city who had worked closely with Kollek, Barkat’s plan for Silwan was anything but Kollek’s modus operandi.

“Teddy never initiated a plan that would have set the city on fire,” said a high-ranking employee at the municipality this week. “And this plan, fair as it may be, will raise tremendous opposition among the residents of Silwan, which could easily turn into serious riots.”

And indeed, for the past week tension has reached a very high level in the streets of Silwan, particularly in El-Bustan. On Sunday evening, some 200 Arabs hurled stones and fire bombs at security forces there, wounding six Border Police officers and four private security personnel, while dozens of Arab residents were also hurt by tear gas sprayed by the Border Police. According to one of the Jewish residents of Beit Yehonatan, security guards had to fire warning shots into the air.

WHY IS Mayor Barkat so eager to promote a plan that, in the best-case scenario, will not be put into effect for at least a few years? It could be long and exhausting and, in the meantime, could inflame the city and thus achieve the exact opposite result he is after. A few riots in the Old City, let alone a terrorist act, would mean the end of his dream to have millions of tourists come to the city.

At the request of the prime minister, the submission of the plan to the local committee was postponed until city council member Yakir Segev, holder of the portfolio for east Jerusalem, met with dozens of residents in Silwan and tried to convince them that the plan was their best hope of finally, after 43 years of Israeli rule, living under human conditions and escaping the threat of having their homes demolished.

For obvious reasons, there is no way of knowing how many residents signed the documents presented by the municipality, but there is no doubt that quite a few of them did. Last week, Barkat ordered the plan to be submitted to the Local Planning and Construction Committee. The three members of the Meretz party on the city council – Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu, Meir Margalit and Laura Wharton – voted against the decision.

“We didn’t vote against it hoping that other members of the coalition would join us,” explained Margalit. “I don’t think any of those who feel uneasy under Barkat’s reign have the guts to leave; but, nevertheless, quite a few of them congratulated us, and it was a very rewarding moment.”

As a result of their vote, the three were immediately fired from the coalition.

Alalu pointed out the growing disappointment among various spheres in the city. “The merchants are exhausted because of the road work in the city center, which has ruined them; young parents are sickened to see how the education system is not improving despite all his [Barkat’s] promises; and we still don’t have affordable housing. A lot of things are still unsolved, yet Barkat is deeply involved in this Silwan thing as if there was nothing more important.”

So why is Barkat promoting this plan, despite all the problematic issues? Perhaps the answer lies in something that one of those closest to him told In Jerusalem. “Jerusalem really means something special to Barkat. For him, it has never been just another city. Although he is not religiously observant, he is deeply committed to Jewish values and history. He lived in the Jewish Quarter for a while, and he had his bar mitzva at the Western Wall, at his request. This is a very special place in the world for him. As far as the status of Jerusalem is concerned, he feels much more concerned and committed than just a local political figure. So besides taking care of the economic aspects, education and all these issues he is working for, this location, close to the City of David, close to the Temple Mount – he just couldn’t ignore it any longer as the previous mayors did. Whether he realizes the international risks and the outcomes is another story,” said the source.  

“No one seriously questions Barkat’s commitment to the city and in particular the Old City or the City of David and the Silwan area,” added a city council member. “The question is why is he doing this, though it is clear that he is taking a lot of risks, especially toward his own plans – the economy, the tourists. No one really understands what’s behind this. But on the other hand, no one can seriously oppose a mayor’s decision to implement the law and the rules of construction, right? So he has a majority, though quite a few of them don’t really understand where he is leading them.” 

THE THREE Meretz members opposed the plan for political reasons, but many of the city council coalition members don’t share the mayor’s enthusiasm, either. What is even more noteworthy is that hardly any of them agreed to be quoted, a very unusual attitude for elected members of a local council. Two of them explained that Barkat does not appreciate open criticism, thus they prefer to express their views through the comfortable veil of anonymity.

“There is a sense that there is no place for real debate,” admitted one of the city council members. “We get the message that if we discuss things, he takes it as lack of loyalty toward him, almost on a personal level. People don’t want to get into trouble, so they refrain from saying what they really think most of the time.”

Asked what exactly was the problem in some of the coalition members’ eyes, the city council member explained, “The problem is not whether the plan for Gan Hamelech is a good plan or not. Basically, it has some good points, and except for the members of Meretz who opposed it first on political grounds, we all more or less agree that this municipality should enforce the law there and that something has to be done regarding the huge amount of illegal construction. The problem is that we don’t know if this plan will succeed. There are plenty of other urgent issues that should be addressed here; and even long before it is approved by the District Construction Committee, it might arouse tension and even violence. Is this what we need now, when all of us, and primarily the mayor, are trying to bring as many tourists here as possible and show that we can provide a normal life to the residents of this city?”

Things are easier for city council member Meir Turgeman, until last week the only member of the opposition. Turgeman has never had a problem expressing his views and willingly agreed to comment.

“I voted against this plan for many reasons. Mainly because it is not realistic but nevertheless has a high potential of stirring up trouble – who needs a third intifada now?” he fumed. He added that he met with the Arab residents and tried to allay their anxiety. “I told them when they came to the Planning Committee to protest against the plan that they shouldn’t worry because it would take years before one stone was removed from their houses.”

Turgeman said his position was shared by members of the coalition who dare not express it openly, though it doesn’t mean he disregards the necessity to enforce the law. “I am, of course, in favor of respecting the law. But I’m asking this mayor, ‘If illegal construction bothers you so much, how come Beit Yehonatan is still there?’ I am in favor of equal law for everyone, and even though the guys from Ateret Cohanim [an organization dedicated to purchasing former Jewish property in the Old City in order to install Jewish residents there] criticized me severely about that, I am adamant about one law for all.”

Judging by the prevailing reactions – whether on record or not – many who believe that it is necessary to enforce the law in east Jerusalem also believe that, considering the international atmosphere, the mayor’s plan could turn into a disaster. To these considerations Barkat and those close to him responded that there is not such a thing as “an appropriate time” for anything that is done in east Jerusalem.

“Whatever we do now in east Jerusalem in the current international atmosphere will raise criticism and opposition,” said Yakir Segev, city council member and holder of the portfolio for east Jerusalem. “Is that a reason to disregard the needs of the residents? For over 40 years, nothing has been done there. It’s about time we did something. And besides that, who says this municipality can’t run a few different projects at the same time, such as education, affordable housing and the Gan Hamelech project?”

SO PERHAPS it is simply a question of reasserting sovereignty over east Jerusalem. When asked, at the end of his press conference, if this was the most urgent issue on the city’s agenda, Barkat answered, with slight irritation in his voice, that he couldn’t accept that the law against illegal construction would be disregarded throughout the city, “without any distinction between Jews and Arabs.” 

However, there are many who say that the plan – despite its few interesting solutions for the regulation of illegal construction and the improvement of living conditions – does not offer the Arab residents a better situation. In fact, they say, it simply paves the way for a development plan that, for the moment, no one knows how to promote, let alone finance. 

To the many charges leveled against it in this article, a municipal spokesman responded in a statement that the plan was submitted to the local Planning and Construction Committee to allow the public to express opposition.

“It is important to remember that it was the court’s decision to demolish the houses [in Silwan], not the municipality’s. The municipality is offering a solution that will enable over 90 percent of the illegal homes to become legal and offers solid solutions to the others, despite the fact that they are all illegal,” he said.

“In the framework of the plan, the municipality will ensure that all the necessary infrastructure will be installed – roads, sewage, electricity and more. Also included in the plan is a large public structure that will provide, for the first time, such facilities as kindergartens, classrooms, a community center, fitness rooms and a well-baby clinic. It will also include an underground parking lot for 140 cars.”

“Murad,” whose house is one of the 22 destined to be demolished, woke up on Sunday to find that once again, his water had been shut off. “It’s like that very often. We’re already used to it,” he said.

Murad was one of the Arab residents who had gone to the session of the Local Planning Committee to protest. “We just don’t understand how it works here. We were asked by the municipality to submit our plan. We presented a first one, and then a second one, which cost us a fortune. OK, a plan can be submitted and rejected, we know that, but they didn’t even bother to look at them. Why? So, of course, we can’t believe that the mayor is doing this to improve our conditions here. It is clear that he only wants to demolish our houses in order to install more Jews and hand the Bustan to the Elad association, those who built up the City of David compound. For years we haven’t obtained anything here – no lighting in the streets, no playgrounds, nothing – and now he suddenly wants to develop here? We don’t believe him or anyone else in this municipality.”

For attorney Elisha Peleg, representative of the Likud party in Barkat’s coalition, it is exactly respect for the law that is lacking in the mayor’s plan. “I am in favor of the plan in principle, but I just don’t understand why there are only 22 illegal houses to be demolished. Why aren’t we destroying all the illegal houses built there? I’ll tell you why. Because we cave in to Palestinian terrorism. If the court has issued 88 decrees of demolition against 88 illegal houses, then we should immediately proceed and destroy those 88 houses, not only 22.”

In regard to the international and the national level issue, Peleg believes that as far as east Jerusalem is concerned, “There is no such a thing as right timing.”

Peleg, who has been quite involved in the activities of the Jewish associations to install Jewish residents in east Jerusalem, refuses to take into account the international political aspects. But other members of the coalition, including some representatives of the haredi parties, think differently.

“There is no question about our right to implement our sovereignty there,” said one. “The real question is ‘Is this what Jerusalem needs now?’ Aren’t there other problems this mayor should solve before that?” 

Another member of the coalition added that the most worrisome aspect of the project is that no one has a clue about the real motives behind the mayor’s plan. “In fact, we don’t really know what he’s after,” he said.

In an attempt to understand his steps, city council member Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut) offered another point of view. “I believe that Barkat is acting out of an inherent sense of justice and that he cannot abide not seeing the law being enforced and respected,” he said. “And it seems to me that his plan – which is far more than destroying 22 houses – comes out of a genuine concern for the residents there, together with his commitment to the law. That said, I am not sure this is the right thing to do in the current context, here and abroad. I would be curious to know the results of a poll on the subject. We all know that most of Jerusalem’s residents are on the Right side of the political map. Still, I am willing to bet that most of the residents wouldn’t agree that this is the first priority. So I wonder – if I’m right and hardly anyone really cares about this issue – why waste time and energy on it? It doesn’t make sense. I, of course, out of loyalty to the coalition, will vote for the plan when it is presented to the city council. And I am strongly convinced that Mayor Barkat is acting out of genuine and serious concern for the city. But frankly, I wish we could spend more time, energy and means on the other burning issues we have here, such as affordable housing, jobs for the young to keep them here, not to mention the transportation situation.”

Concern about Israeli sovereignty? Concern about implementation of the law? Desire to develop the economy and tourism? While no one in the coalition really understands what lies behind Barkat’s brand of stubbornness, there is at least one person who thinks he knows the answer.

“For me, there is no question at all,” said Turgeman. “Barkat submitted the plan to the Local Planning Committee, knowing very well that it doesn’t mean a thing in reality – the real decisions are made only by the District Committee. He just wanted to be in the news. Think about it. All over the world, in Washington, DC, everybody knows who Nir Barkat is. Thanks to this issue, he is on the national and even international level of the news. He apparently needs that.

“My problem – and I think it is the problem of all Jerusalem residents  – is not if the mayor of this city yearns to be in the news or not. Our problem is to see that there is some calm and tranquility here, that we can still provide some coexistence and that we provide some basic conditions to attract tourists. But in any case, I just don’t understand this. Even if it’s a realistic plan and is good for this city, don’t we have several more urgent issues on our plate, such as the embarrassingly low standing we have in the matriculation levels in the country or the dirt and the neglect in the streets, let alone the light rail saga? Why is the mayor wasting his time and energy on this issue?”
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