Tempest in a coffee cup

Mayor Nir Barkat and his adviser for the Arab population have done away with the small talk and decided to take action to improve conditions in east Jerusalem, but trust between the sides is difficult to build.

Mayor Nir Barkat has replaced chats over coffee with business-like action plans. (photo credit: MCT)
Mayor Nir Barkat has replaced chats over coffee with business-like action plans.
(photo credit: MCT)
Who would have thought that a harmless custom such as a conversation over a cup of coffee between the municipality and representatives of the Arab neighborhoods or skipping that custom altogether could turn into a major issue? At first, one would think that a cup of coffee, whether skipped or not, couldn’t really be at the bottom of such a crucial issue as the nature of the relationship between the Jerusalem Municipality and its Arab residents. And yet this is apparently one of the major reasons for the mistrust that still exists between a large part of the Arab population and the city’s leadership and establishment. Perhaps not so much the coffee itself but the cultural gap that underlies the deep misunderstanding.
Toward the middle of his first term in office, Mayor Nir Barkat announced that in accordance with his political position – that the city was and should forever be united under Israeli sovereignty – he would take accountability (a term Barkat is particularly fond of) over the Arab population. His vision was rather simple. Barkat offered a “new deal”: More rights (investment and development) in exchange for a requirement to fulfill civic duties. In other words, Barkat offered the Arab population a significant improvement in their quality of life (as far as the municipality was concerned) in return for their obligation to pay their taxes and cooperate with the municipality apparatus. Sounds good so far. And it is actually working, although, of course – and Barkat is the first to admit it – more than four decades of neglect cannot be eradicated in one or two years. The problem lies somewhere else: in a cup of coffee and what it may symbolize.
For the past three years David Koren, the mayor’s young and dedicated adviser for the Arab population and east Jerusalem (including the Christian communities), has been working very hard to implement the mayor’s plan. Not surprisingly, the plan was constructed according to the best hi-tech and business methods. This is a carefully, tightly crafted plan with a clearly defined aim, a timetable and a precise schedule, all splendidly built. Everything is there – the mission statement, the methods to be used, the various municipal departments involved (almost all of them), a magnificent system of internal coordination and even the large budgets required to fulfill the mission.
“Instead of what had been the usual attitude, with representatives of the municipality meeting representatives of the Arab population, talking about the ‘situation’ over a cup of coffee but ending with doing almost nothing, mainly because there was no plan or schedule, today we have a plan and are working according to it,” Koren said in a phone conversation earlier this week. He added, “We are working hard to reduce the friction between the population and the establishment as much as possible.”
NIS 300 million plus NIS 200m. more, allocated by the government, besides the special budget (from various ministries for development projects in the city) is a lot of money. It includes basic but important things, such as naming the streets and numbering the houses and buildings in the Arab neighborhoods, as well as adding more roads, streets, playgrounds, schools and community centers. And instead of chatting over cups of coffee, the municipality teams work via the local neighborhood councils (there are seven in the Arab neighborhoods) or the local merchants’ committees. This type of work takes time to be accomplished, time to be seen and felt by the residents who are not part of these committees.
We no longer see a municipal representative leisurely sitting with plenty of time for small talk and… coffee. A few things are changing, but these processes take time. Meanwhile, many of the Arab residents feel that no progress has been made in regard to all the promises. Hence, there is still a relatively high level of mistrust and defiance, which easily feeds the impatience and anger of the population, mainly the young generation.
When such a horrible event as the murder of young Muhammad Abu Khdeir occurs and Jewish hooligans attack Arabs in the streets of Jerusalem, the mayor’s plan to reduce the gap between the two sectors of the city and the dedicated work of the municipality’s teams, which are anyway too slow to be perceived, is not enough to contain the outburst of anger. Especially when, on top of all this, there are quite a few political agents – such as Hamas activists – who never miss an opportunity to gain more supporters for their cause.