Jerusalem Affairs: Giving new meaning to an undivided capital

Barkat learned he would need the support of the modern-Orthodox sector, as well as a heavy turnout among secular voters.

Barkat speaks to supporters 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Barkat speaks to supporters 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
They were dubbed, with disgust, the "Taliban troupe" - teenage female dancers, forced by the haredi-run municipality to cover their hair during a performance at the inauguration of the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to Jerusalem. This, more than any other single incident, highlighted the growing concern among many secular and traditional residents of the city over the increasingly haredi makeup of the capital. Not only did it completely overshadow the multi-million-shekel ceremony, but - coupled with public dismay at the city's repeated delay in completing the light rail system, and all the inconvenience it has wrought - it galvanized opposition to City Hall. Indeed, the "modesty" controversy is considered the catalyst for this week's victory of the secular opposition leader, Nir Barkat, in the Jerusalem mayoral election. For Barkat, a 49-year-old, self-made, hi-tech millionaire who quit the world of business six years ago to enter local politics, the victory followed five and half years of hard work while in a powerless position in the corridors of the municipality. This was after he lost the previous mayoral race in 2003 to Uri Lupolianski - when he burst onto the local political scene as a virtual unknown. During the interim, Barkat learned a few things about Jerusalem politics that were essential to his victory, chief among them that, with a third of the city's Jewish residents haredi, he would need the support of the modern-Orthodox sector, as well as a heavy turnout among secular voters. After the government began talking about dividing Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians last year, Barkat - a Kadima member - led a public campaign against the division of the city. This endeared him to the secular Right and national-religious sectors - especially when he cut his ties with his party, increasingly anathema to a traditionally hawkish Jerusalem electorate. Also during the period since his previous defeat, he actively courted the support of students, green groups and merchants - all disgruntled with a lack of affordable housing in the city, a dearth of job opportunities and the fast-becoming infamous light-rail project, referred to in Hebrew as the "accursed train"(a play on words with harakevet hakala and rakevet haklala). Barkat's path to the top slot at City Hall seemed to be gradually paving itself. But this past summer, it appeared to be completely smooth, when the United Torah Judaism Party selected MK Meir Porush - a veteran haredi legislator with a quarter-century of local and national public service - as their candidate to replace Lupolianski. (He had committed to step down after his first term, as part of an inter-party rotation agreement.) Though Porush has the reputation of being a politician who gets things done, he was nevertheless perceived by many Jerusalemites as someone who, as mayor, would primarily work for the benefit of his own community. This perception may have been a product of the cultural climate of a city whose young people have been emigrating in droves, partly due to what they consider to be the "haredization" of the city. And it was only reinforced when Porush commented in Yiddish to a haredi audience that within 10 years, there will be no secular mayors in Israel. To make matters worse for the haredi candidate - and better for Barkat - rifts within the haredi world surfaced over the candidacy of the former. First, there was a begrudging Lupolianski. Keen on running for a second term in office, he was said to be working behind the scenes to keep his position. Then, after he dutifully bowed out of the race, the former powerful Shas leader, Arieh Deri, expressed his own interest in running, creating a potential showdown between two haredi candidates. Ultimately, however, a Jerusalem court ruled that Deri could not run, due to his past convictions for criminal acts. Finally, just when Deri's candidacy was no longer an issue, the usually rock-solid haredi camp suffered an additional blow, which some say cost Porush the race: The Gerrer Hasidim actively campaigned against him, due to their belief that he offended their rabbi by drawing up a secret plan that would exclude them from their current central role in the haredi education system. IT IS thus that this week's election has been hailed as a turning point. Not only did it bring the secular candidate to power on a mandate of economic and other improvements for the city, but it shook up the city council, which had been dominated by the haredi parties for the last five years. Indeed, Barkat is now in a position to form a supportive city council without his haredi opponents, due to the entry of an array of small independent parties, including a popular 20- and 30-somethings joint secular and modern-Orthodox list called Wake up Jerusalem. Still, Barkat - who has pledged to be the mayor of all residents, Jewish Arab and Christian, secular religious and haredi - said on Wednesday, at two separate Hebrew and English press conferences at the King David Hotel, that he was planning to invite the haredi parties to join his coalition. "This is the right thing to do," he said, a mere 15 hours after declaring his victory. He also reaffirmed his commitment to building housing for young Jewish and Arab couples in east Jerusalem. He also suggested that he might curtail the light-rail project altogether - calling it "megalomaniacal," and a failure at meeting Jerusalem's transportation needs. BARKAT CONDUCTED the press conferences like a polished politician. He was well-prepared and articulate as he fielded questions on everything from his criticism over Wakf construction on the Temple Mount ("We must abide by the law") to Jewish construction in east Jerusalem ("In this city we have Jews who live among Arabs in east Jerusalem, and Arabs who live among Jews in west Jerusalem. There is nothing wrong with that") to his opposition to the government's plans to divide Jerusalem as part of a final peace treaty with the Palestinians ("A united Jerusalem is a win-win situation for all its residents, especially if we want this city to be a world tourism site"). POLITICS AND polemics aside, Jerusalemites have been yearning for change on the municipal level: clean streets, improved infrastructure, transportation and education, an end to the seemingly endless traffic jams, cheaper housing and jobs. Indeed, it is these - not the grandiose political issues - that will be the challenges facing the entrepreneur-turned-city councilor-turned-mayor as he takes office in three weeks. The question is: Will he be able to succeed in local politics as he did in business? An entire city is hoping so.