Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem since 2008, has a message to critics who claim he has “checked out” or otherwise abdicated his responsibilities during his second term, as he purportedly sets his sights on Likud’s greener pastures in national office: “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Indeed, as the capital continues to face its unique challenges – amid the upcoming 50th anniversary of 1967 war and the inclusion of both its eastern (including the Old City) and western parts under one municipal jurisdiction – Barkat said his head remains in the game more than ever.
WHILE SPECULATION runs rampant that his recent Likud membership is a harbinger of a shift in priorities toward the premiership, Barkat, a self-made multimillionaire businessman and father of three, said joining the right-wing party was little more than a logical and practical progression in his relatively nascent political career.
“I decided that after I finish a second or third term [as mayor], I will not go back to the business world,” he said. “I will stay in public service, and I would be happy to serve on the national side; whatever the public will elect me to do.
“I want to take my positive experiences in Jerusalem to the national level.”
Asked if he has considered running for a third five-year term as mayor, Barkat replied “not yet,” adding, perhaps tellingly, that his alliance with Likud has been “better than expected.”
Pressed on his plans, Barkat replied with a poker face. “When I make a decision, I’ll tell you,” he said, while conceding that he will unequivocally stay with Likud, and need at least one year to run a successful national campaign.
“It’s not on the table for me to think about,” he continued.
“Right now, I’m totally focused on Jerusalem. What is amazing is that when I focus on the budget and work with the national government on it, I’m plugged into the Likud, and it helps me a lot. Much more than in the past.
“Having a party aligned with you makes life better, or simpler, than it was in the past.”
Asked about rumors of bad blood between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the last election, when Netanyahu appointed Ze’ev Elkin as Jerusalem affairs minister (ostensibly going over Barkat’s head), the mayor acknowledged he was displeased by the move.
“It’s true that I said I didn’t like it, and I moved on,” he said. “He’s my prime minister, and [Elkin is] my minister and I have a very good relationship with them. I felt that it is unfair, but we move on.
“It’s not a banana republic here,” he continued. “We have a prime minister and mayor, and we want to work together, and are working together to make the city and country work better.”
With respect to vocal concerns about his division of time spent between the municipality and Likud, Barkat said “it’s not any different than any mayor I know who spends time with his mother party.”
“The majority of the mayors in the country come to the Knesset once a week, and spend time with the different parliament members, soliciting [for] their city, and speaking to their peers or party and different ministries. I do that all the time,” he said.
“I did it before I decided to join the Likud party,” Barkat continued.
“There’s no major change in the time allocation. Of course, I speak to the Knesset members – they come here and I go to them, and not just Likud, but all parties.
“Why?” he asked rhetorically: “Because I need their support on the budget. So, I don’t understand what’s different between me and any other mayor in the country who wants to create a network, and benefit his or her city.”
Build, build, build
“The Local Committee for Building and Construction has no line,” Barkat said regarding building in the city.
“Everything that comes to the local committee, we approve. On the District Committee, which is national, sometimes there are [barriers] for projects that are awaiting approval.
“On the local side,” he continued, “I basically said to everyone that I’m not ever going to stop building. No construction will be stopped by me as mayor.”
The national committee, he lamented, presents far more obstacles.
“On the national side, unfortunately, there are some hiccups and delays that I believe are due to international pressure put on the prime minister and the national government,” he said.
“Hopefully, if we have the option to have that removed, it’s going to be very good for the city of Jerusalem.”
Asked his response to overwhelming international criticism of the municipality for expanding Jewish homes in Jerusalem, Barkat said the critics are shortsighted.
“They’re missing two things,” he said.
“When the American administration or the Europeans come and talk about freezing building in Jerusalem and the pressure they add, I pose [a few] questions to them: ‘Freeze all the infrastructure for the Arab residents? Freeze building the schools? Do not give the Arabs [construction] permits? Do you mean freeze everything? “Or, God forbid,” he continued, “do you mean that I have to ask somebody whether he is Jewish or not to determine if I freeze his construction? Is that according to the Constitution of the United States? You want to tell me that I, as mayor of Jerusalem, have to differentiate between Jews and Arabs for granting permission?” Moreover, Barkat said, when the national government offers bids on construction tenders anywhere in the country, they are forbidden to ask the bidder what religion, race or nationality they are.
ALTHOUGH INTERNATIONAL pressure has slowed down Jewish construction in the capital to a snail’s pace, Barkat said it has allowed the municipality to focus more on the city’s ongoing and necessary urban renewal.
“Jerusalem,” he said, “is one of the leading cities in renewal. We have more than 80,000 apartments in different phases of renewal – thousands of percents more than what we had years ago.”
Over the next few years, Barkat claimed, the city potentially has the opportunity to create more than 34,000 new residential units.
“What happened in the past,” Barkat explained, “was that the easiest thing to do was build a new neighborhood with tractors and kill the forests, which may have been simpler, but is the wrong thing to do.
“As a result of that,” he continued, “the management of the city was always focused on expansion. I said: ‘Stop! Let’s revisit the old neighborhoods. Let’s restructure, upgrade, do city renewal.’ Even though that process is more complicated, it’s the right thing to do.”
By focusing on urban renewal, Barkat said, the city is upgrading everyone’s quality of life.
Such renewal also extends to upgrading schools, roads, and other existing infrastructure, he said, engendering a more appealing option for young people to reside in, and build families in the city.
‘Good to the good guys, bad to the bad guys’
Barkat explains that there were four major reasons why young people left the capital: a lack of jobs, quality of life, quality of education, and affordable housing.
“The No. 1 reason was jobs,” he said.
“If you don’t have a job, you leave. The No. 2 reason is quality of life: leisure, fun, etc., and we’ve made a dramatic improvement in that. The third is quality education.
“If you count the number of kids in the educational system from first grade to 12th,” Barkat explained, “in 2001 we had 64,000 in the national and national religious systems, [not including haredi or Arab students]. The ultra-Orthodox sector scaled up about 2% a year, the Arab school population scaled about 2% a year, while our system shrunk about 1.5% a year,” he said.
“At the end of 2008, when I became mayor, we were down to 58,000, and were shrinking about 1.5% in absolute numbers annually. That’s why my predecessors used to move one or two schools every year, sometimes three, from the secular sector to the haredi sector.
“Now,” he continued, “we’re back up to 65,000 students, and have turned that around, and the number of national and national religious kids in the system is scaling mainly in elementary schools. We have very nice growth on the secular and national religious side, which has the same numbers as the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.”
While Barkat acknowledged that more than 50% of all pupils in the city are Arab and haredi, he said his administration has “turned around the trend.”
“One of the reasons I decided to become mayor was because we were shrinking, and they [Arabs and haredim] were growing,” he said, “and I wanted to turn that around.
Now, thank God, we are serving all constituencies, and have no problem with the Arab and haredi sectors scaling. The concern I had is that the Zionist population was shrinking, and now it’s growing.”
With respect to the fourth variable, affordable housing, Barkat conceded that he has “less control,” although “we can, and are, providing new houses in reasonable quantities.” ACCORDING TO Barkat, Jerusalem’s unique demographic and religious DNA is not a “bug,” but rather a positive feature.
“By design, Jerusalem is built to host and include all tribes – Jews and non- Jews alike,” he said. “That was the role of Jerusalem 3,000 years ago. It was the only place that was not given to any specific tribe. It belonged to all.
“The philosophy of leading the city in the future is about a deep understanding that there is a role for everyone here. If someone is not included in the city, then the city is not functioning well. So, by design, there is room for all different constituencies,” Barkat contended.
“Five billion people care about this city,” he continued. “We have not only God overlooking us. We are under a huge magnifying glass, and everything we do is zoomed in on to the level of detail of an illegal house, or specific garden. I see this as one of the genuine positives of the city of Jerusalem.”
Noting the markedly improved security situation since the so-called “stabbing intifada” that engulfed the capital late last year, Barkat cited a recently approved investment by the government of more than NIS 1 billion to build six new police stations in flashpoint Arab neighborhoods, install hundreds of CCTV cameras and deploy 1,200 more officers as key variables for ongoing crime prevention.
Beyond the security measures, Barkat said he is working on a grassroots level with Arab communities to improve social and economic relations and conditions.
“We created something that has never been done before in Jerusalem. I call it the ‘civil/security joint venture.’ You cannot just come with a bat and sticks, which is the police. You have to come with carrots and sticks. And that’s how our joint venture works together,” he said.
“Since the run of violence, we now understand much better that we need to go into Facebook and social media in Arabic. We also increased hours at Arab boys’ high schools, and made sure that the kids have a better opportunity to stay after hours, at least until 5 p.m., rather than going into the streets.
“We had the roadblocks so that the local [Arab] leadership could take accountability in their neighborhoods to secure the Jewish people. We did a joint venture between the municipality and the police, and other security forces, to align interests and work together. There has been very good cooperation between the civil and security people.”
The core of his security strategy, Barkat said, is “being good to the good guys, and bad to the bad guys.”
“What we’re doing is showing that it won’t pay to be a bad guy,” he explained. “People are going to pay a heavy price under the law. If we know that somebody is trying to create violence and terrorism, they will pay a price.”
Despite widely held beliefs that Jerusalem is one of the most violent cities in the world, Barkat said, per capita, it is in fact one of the safest, with a very low relative homicide rate.
“America has, on average, nine murders for every 100,000 residents,” he said. “In inner cities, it’s 11. Johannesburg has 39; in Cape Town it’s 60.
“Last year, we had a bad year here,” Barkat added. “But, what was the murder rate in Jerusalem? 1.5 per 100,000 residents. There were 13 murders – 11 from terrorism and two by other means. And, so far, this year we have three... So, this is one of the safest cities in the world, by far.”
However, since Jerusalem has a disproportionate amount of international media attention per murder, compared to other cities, Barkat lamented that it appears far worse.
“When I fly to America, I pray to come home safely to my city of Jerusalem,” he added with a wry smile.
THE MAYOR stood by his controversial recent announcement to demolish 14 illegally constructed Arab homes in east Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood, displacing 40 families, following the Supreme Court’s ruling that illegal Jewish homes in the West Bank’s Amona community were to be destroyed.
While Barkat emphasized that he does not want to demolish the homes in Beit Hanina, he said he has no choice but to carry out the court’s ruling.
“The criticism is a reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said.
“We [the municipality] cannot decide that we have a different solution.
There was a court order to take down the Beit Hanina houses, and the court gave them an extension of time to fix it between the owners and municipality, so maybe they could get a license, and we played ball with that.
“But about a month and a half ago, my legal counsel came to Jerusalem and said, ‘Hey, mayor, we’re not working according to the law based on the Supreme Court’s decision. We don’t have the option [of delaying the order] because what the court said is that if the legal owner comes to you and shows that he owns the building, and is not interested in negotiating, then you cannot fix it.’ There is a court order to take down these houses. It’s not up to me, it was the court’s decision.
“This was not revenge for the Amona ruling,” he continued. “There is one law, and we’re hoping that Amona will eventually be sorted out, because if the Supreme Court gives the national government the ability to fix it, that would enable us to continue our path of fixing [similar situations]. If the Supreme Court says you cannot fix it, that means [the municipality] can’t do that either.”
Jerusalem is listed as the country’s poorest city per capita in the most recent Central Bureau of Statistics report.
Barkat said that dubious distinction is poised to change dramatically amid a number of far-reaching, ambitious, multibillion-shekel initiatives.
Indeed, Barkat cited a 2015 Time magazine article that identified Jerusalem as the No. 1 emerging techhub city.
“On the economic front, my role is being a market maker,” he said. “For the scale of Jerusalem’s economy, you have to create a large demand for the city, and then lay out the infrastructure to enable the supply side to scale.”
He continued, “So, you need to synchronize and manage the growth.
Growth doesn’t just happen, it has to be managed. You have to push the demand and make the city [attractive] for hi-tech companies. Thank God, we’re going in the right direction there.”
To that end, Barkat noted ongoing efforts to attract hi-tech firms to the city, as well as a planned sprawling business district at the western entrance to the capital – coupled with the nearby high-speed railway to and from Tel Aviv in mid-2018 – which he said will generate over 40,000 new jobs.
“That’s the infrastructure we’re laying to enable continual growth,” he said. “So, in many ways what we are doing is creating a demand and helping the supply-side scale, otherwise you can’t maintain the demand. If you just build without demand, nobody will come; if you create the demand and don’t have the supply side, they won’t stay. So, to scale the two together is one of the challenges I have as mayor.”
Barkat continued: “Through my entrepreneurial and venture capital background, I understand what needs to be done, and thank God the national government is giving us a lot of support, a lot of capital.”
“We scaled from 250 companies about four years ago, to about 600,” he said. “I’ve told a number of hi-tech companies that you have to see what is happening in Jerusalem; they saw and said, ‘We’re in.’” Another area Barkat said he hopes to expand to enhance economic progress is tourism, which he claims is ushering in a “strong cultural renaissance.”
“There are bumps on the road because of security, but the hotel industry understands and believes that the city is going in the right direction, and is very attractive for tourists and Israelis,” he said.
“The light festival, the marathon, the music festival, the film festival – an array of festivals and scaling – and the cultural institutions that used to get NIS 5 million a year, and another NIS 10m. from the national government, are getting another NIS 50-60m.
together today, so they are moving from survival mode to creative mode.”
Moreover, Barkat said that six initiatives created in the past two years include job placement programs for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors.
“The first year we placed 2,000 ultra- Orthodox men in the labor force, and last year we made 4,000 placements,” he said. “We also opened up one for Arabs this year. We have [initiatives] for welfare; another one for youth; another for olim [immigrants], so we are now focusing on how to place the growing labor force and people who need jobs.”
According to Barkat, culture tourism, health-life sciences, and hi-tech have the greatest potential to engender meaningful and lasting economic growth.
ASKED ABOUT next year’s 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, and Jerusalem’s development since, Barkat replied: “Look around you,” as he pointed toward the large windows in his City Hall office.
“You see a sovereign city. We have cranes building everywhere, and nearly 600,000 Jews in the capital. What we have here is nothing short of amazing in terms of historical achievements and accomplishments.
“I think that if you told any Jew in the 1940s, during the Holocaust, that you could fast-forward 70 years and live in Jerusalem the way it looks today, no one would have ever believed you.”