‘At least one more term’

Three years in, Mayor Nir Barkat lists many achievements but he insists his work has not yet been completed.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In a few weeks, Nir Barkat will enter the third year of his term as mayor of Jerusalem. Three years is a fair amount of time to assess what has been done, whether it was successful and to estimate what will not be achieved, at least this term.
The changes that have taken place in the city during these three years are considerable. However, in the eyes of many of Barkat’s voters, they have not been enough or, in some cases, they have been disappointing.
While there is no question that Barkat has made tremendous improvements in the capital’s cultural life, there are many who accuse him of giving in to his haredi partners in the coalition by accommodating some of their strictures. What he sees as making the situation more equitable is often regarded as a willingness on his part to give in to haredi threats.
Education, a crucial issue in Barkat’s eyes, is at the top of his list of priorities, yet despite quite a few substantial improvements, Jerusalem’s students are still not topping the number of the nation’s high school graduates. And then there is the issue of the tension between the haredim and the rest of the population, which comes to a head from time to time in Mea She’arim and Kiryat Hayovel.
In a pre-Rosh Hashana interview, Barkat sometimes gives the same answer to different questions. A combination of accountability, hi-tech-style management, computerization and modernity, planning and taking action instead of talking is the essence of what can be called the “Barkat Era.” One thing is certain – and Barkat never hesitates to emphasize it – the man is here to do a job.
“People talk, I work” was one of the mayor’s typical answers in this interview, and he will do that work the way he believes it must be done, leaving little room for criticism.
Today, two years before the next elections, there is no other serious candidate on the horizon, and Barkat is well aware of that.
You are the only mayor who, instead of issuing orders to evacuate the [protest] tents, offered a package deal to help. This is not your responsibility. Why did you do it?
There are two groups of protesters – students and underprivileged people. They have different backgrounds, different problems, and they need different types of attention. I have met with the students several times, and I am in continuous contact with them, I know their problems, as I was on the opposition. That’s why I created and supported the establishment of the New Spirit organization, which included the issues of affordable housing here.
We see ourselves as regulators, as those responsible, as promoters of the whole issue of affordable housing for our residents. I met with representatives of the government, even with the prime minister, and presented my plans. The homeless families need something else, and we tried to provide some basic solutions.
At one point, a group of protesters squatted in the empty dormitories in Kiryat Hayovel. Did you consider proposing mediation between the squatters and the university?
No, I believe that squatters should not be supported. I can show a certain degree of tolerance when it is happening in a public space. They are in tents, their struggle is also a public interest. I can understand the need to allow a democratic protest while taking into consideration the need to protect the public space – but a private location? There is no place for a squatter in a private place. That’s anarchy.
Regarding the homeless families, I know their situation will remain very precarious even after we manage to provide the package deal we put together – financial support from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, use of the Prazot public housing company’s funds. Even if this is accomplished, some of them will still be facing many difficulties. So I am standing between the right to public protest and my obligation as mayor to ensure the smooth running of this city.
With regard to education, there is some good news. This year, for the first time in more than 15 years, there has been an increase in the number of pupils enrolled in kindergarten and first grade in both secular and religious state schools. But compared to these 240 new pupils, there are thousands of new pupils in the same grade in the haredi sector. What are you going to do to enhance your upward trend?
Since I became mayor, changes in the trend have occurred, and we are now seeing the results. We had two years with no change at all, and this year the growth has begun. We already have some figures for next year, and we can see that this trend is continuing.
How do you explain this change?
Not everything is a result of the quality of the education system in the city. It is also because the atmosphere has changed. There is more hope, more people believe in this city. If Jerusalem had a low quality of life for some time, today it seems much different. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Yes, but what has changed in the city’s education system?
It has become a profoundly different system. The computerization, the abolition of the catchment areas – many things. This administration is friendly to the residents firstly because we have abolished the catchment areas. The parents may have been in conflict with the administration before, but that is no longer the case. We are doing our utmost to satisfy the parents’ requests and choices, and the whole atmosphere has changed for the better.
That’s the atmosphere, but what about substantial internal changes?
We took schools that were not attractive to pupils and turned them into branches of popular schools. So with a minimum investment, schools that were emptying for lack of enrolment have become schools that pupils want to attend.
Besides that, we have introduced large-scale programs, such as increasing the number of students eligible for matriculation. It has given the whole system a fantastic boost. We have obtained an increase in the matriculation rates of over four percent in one year, and we expect 2% more for the next year. That doesn’t come easily. It is the result of large systematic investment in planning, budgets, attention.
Take the elementary schools, for example. A computer for every teacher – that’s a dramatic change! Now that we have covered all the elementary schools, we plan to reach the kindergartens with this computer program. That’s a huge change. For the best results possible, we combine technology with pedagogy. This is really dramatic!
And it’s not only the teachers who are receiving computers. We are computerizing the whole system. Now we’re reaching the classrooms. In that way, we aim to turn all the classes in the city into e-classes.
We started with eight schools last year; we added 18 schools this year, and we plan to reach 24 schools next year, including in east Jerusalem. We have introduced the Index Tree system, through which we have, in real time, a true picture of the situation in every school – quality of education, pupils attending school or dropping out, advancement in learning programs. That’s another dramatic change.
Is this what we would call hi-tech administration and management? Have you introduced hi-tech methods?
I would call it a different approach. It’s a different frame of mind in management. It’s management focused on obtaining results.
Is this the Barkat style of management?
Absolutely. In the past, things were done just to get by, but we are working fundamentally differently. We want to see results and to test the quality of these results. But it is not only in education. Look at what’s happening in other areas. I just returned from an important discussion in the financial department. We discussed our aims and goals for 2012, much before we began to talk about the budget. I want to see working plans in every area and build the budget on the basis of these plans. Before we decide how much we invest in each domain, I want to see plans, what we want to achieve, where we’re going. Once that is clearly established, we will create an adequate budget.
Take the principal of a school, for example. Through the Index Tree, we can see where his administration has obtained good results and where the weaknesses may lie. It’s clearly marked in red and blue. We can ask this principal what he wants to do to improve the situation. Once a plan is established, we can create the budget. We can know how much money we’ll need. That was not the case in the past; there were no such tools. Compared to this, I would say that the municipality was not managed at all.
The light rail is up and running. In the initial days following your election, you said that the project should be stopped and the Bridge of Strings dismantled. Where do you stand today? Are you satisfied?
I am more satisfied. We have to understand that regarding the light rail project, there was tremendous mismanagement. The whole procedure was not conducted properly. The contract was improperly written – the whole thing was done without any accountability. It was a consortium of private and public entities with no accountability on either side. As a result, every time there was a problem, each side would blame the other.
I came in and put a large question mark on the whole project, and it’s a good thing I did. I changed the whole concept. The private entity is no longer our associate – now they work for us. That’s a dramatic change.
And then I asked to see their working plans. But there were no working plans! Do you understand what it means that such a huge project was not based on working progress plans? But it makes sense – when there is no accountability, nobody wants to show plans, that he doesn’t mean to fulfill, anyway.
Instead, they would come to the municipality and ask for a permit to work on such-and-such an intersection. I said, “Wait. Before I authorize you to work on that intersection, tell me, according to your working plans, when you will be finished with that intersection. I want to know how long it will take, to get ready.”
Nothing! There were no schedules, no plans, nothing. And we’re talking about residents who live here, to whom we have to provide quality of life despite the project. I said, “No way.” We literally forced them to sit at the table and prepare plans. And we, the municipality, took the responsibility upon ourselves.
Later on, the Transportation and Finance ministries and later even the private sector joined us, and today things are completely different. In the next few years the state is going to invest over NIS 7 billion in the next stages of the light rail project. But this time, we are in charge here. We’re the boss.
So from now on, any large project in this city will be totally under the responsibility of the municipality?
Yes, absolutely. The mayor, through the director-general, is responsible. We have introduced a new function – a deputy director-general who is responsible for the working plans and projects of the municipality for the next five years. From now on, accountability is the name of the game.
What’s more, we have convinced the government to change the participation percentage of the budget for the next steps of the mass transit plan. Instead of the usual 70% government and 30% municipality, we will work on the basis of 90% government and 10% municipality. So you ask me if I’m satisfied. Yes, I am. Because today it is clear that the lesson has been taught: No more plans without accountability. From now on, we are totally in charge.
Today we all understand that a public process cannot be privatized. Nothing can replace a municipality that assumes the responsibility for what is being done in the city.
But the present situation is still far from satisfactory. The light rail is not operating fully.
True, but even here there are improvements. Originally, it was not supposed to function at all until everything was completed. But I said, “No, we can’t proceed that way.” I requested that we start to use the light rail even before all the traffic lights were in place, that passengers would start to use it. It works. About five traffic lights are connected to the system every week. So it helps a little bit. It has lowered a lot of the pressure on traffic in other parts.
For political reasons, the French government has forbidden its consulate employees to use the light rail because it goes through east Jerusalem. What do you think about that?
These are meaningless declarations, especially in the eyes of the residents of Jerusalem. I have learned one thing here: People say things; people say a lot of things. Let them talk; I work.
Now, about the haredi-secular issues. Ramot, for example. Will there be elections for the local council there? And for how many councils? One as requested by the haredi members of your coalition or two as the secular residents request?
There will be elections, and it will be for two separate councils.
Does that mean you have managed to convince your partners in the coalition?
I believe so.
They are not so eager to give in to that request. Is it a battle over power and influence in municipal affairs?
I must say that there is a different atmosphere on the city council. There is a lot of consideration by each side for the other. This has enabled us to find solutions for a lot of problems, including the elections in Ramot, as well as some cases where I had to make decisions that were not so popular. And it works.
Why? Because city council members understand their limits or because each side is afraid of the other?
No, it’s more complicated than that.
After all, they need you, but you also need them.
What does that mean I need them? I am the mayor of all the parties.
Well, technically, you don’t need the support of the haredim in your coalition to remain mayor.
I don’t see it that way. I am working in the best interest of the city, of its residents. Let’s talk about what’s good for the residents and the city.
I want to do what’s right. And what’s right for the city is to look for mutual interests. Whenever one gains something and the other doesn’t lose anything – that’s what is good and right. But if one side gains and the other loses, I say let’s stop for a moment and see how we can enlarge the pie so that we have more pieces to distribute.
That’s what I’m doing in Ramot. Instead of working out of limited possibilities, I say no, let’s increase the resources for this neighborhood so we can provide fair services to the whole community. I don’t want to hurt the needs of the secular residents, but I want to give the haredim all the services the municipality has to provide – that’s fair. And the majority of the council agrees with that approach. That means more funding to reduce the gap between the two sides, and I’m okay with that, and so is the majority of the council.
That’s not corruption paid to one side. I said right from the beginning that there is something wrong here. In a neighborhood with something like 40% secular residents and 60% haredim, the services that the municipality provides are distributed 90% to the secular residents and 10% to the haredim. That’s unacceptable. I don’t want to harm the secular side, but the present situation is not fair toward the haredi residents, so I say let’s increase the resources.
Will you apply the same solution in other parts of the city where there is tension between the non-haredi and the haredi communities?
Yes, and it’s already happening. Wherever there is tension, I believe the best way to handle it is to increase the resources instead of allowing the two sides to fight over their pieces of the pie. And it’s not only between haredim and pluralists. It can also happen between national religious and secular.
The September threat is here. Besides the security issues, which are not your responsibility, are you getting ready in some way?
I have increased projects to improve conditions in east Jerusalem, such as neighborhood planning projects, building classrooms to reduce the gap between the two sides. Next week we will inaugurate a new Well Baby clinic in Silwan [this took place on Sunday – P.C.] and do some road construction.
Slowly but surely, we are working on reducing the gaps. I know that it takes time. In one year, you can’t solve problems that have not been addressed for decades.
Do you have serious partners in the government for your plans?
I think it’s too early to say, but I believe that this government is beginning to understand what is involved here. They understand much better today, I mean the Treasury and the Prime Minister’s Office. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
What is your forecast for the near future? It’s almost three years since you were elected. Are you getting ready for the next elections? Are you running again or will you go back to the business world? What’s next for Nir Barkat?
The Jerusalem Municipality. At least one more term.
And then what? The Prime Minister’s Office?
I don’t really know for the moment. I’m not even thinking about it right now.