Changes left and right

City Hall is gearing up for a shake-up as Meretz’s Meir Margalit takes over the east Jerusalem portfolio and an NRP member contests a rotation agreement.

Sheikh Jarrah protests (R) 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Sheikh Jarrah protests (R) 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Jerusalem’s city council sometimes has the power to surprise us all through its capacity to provide strange situations that require patience, tolerance and, above all, a certain degree of humor.
Such a case is happening right now under our noses, as significant changes within some of the parties represented there have an impact on the public sphere. Some of the situations that will prevail a few weeks from now will require patience and tolerance – traits that are not exactly obvious in many of the city council members. One thing is for sure – yet again, reality is providing us with situations that no imagination could have produced.
The first change occurred with the (somewhat controversial) decision of Meretz to join Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition – for the second time in less than two years. To put it mildly, public interest was not the first reason that brought about this result.
A few months ago, with the Knesset decision to allow an eighth deputy mayor, Barkat received a gift he really didn’t need. Too many candidates for the position, not enough support for city council members within their own parties, opposing interests – again within their own parties – not to mention the wide political gaps between some of the parties. It was anything but an advantage.
But Barkat couldn’t just say no to this opportunity.
The first question was how to choose a candidate.
Should there be a party with at least two representatives? Or a party with only one seat on the city council? Should the most loyal to the mayor be the first choice or only close interest of the mayor? Rahel Azaria was in some ways both: in the mayor’s interest (her unwavering loyalty) and her eagerness to obtain the position in order to gain more power for the upcoming elections. Much better to be a deputy mayor on payroll than just a city council member.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. So many unsuspected tensions and passions lay under the respectable cover of an arena of public representatives that only now become apparent.
Meretz leader Pepe Allalu swore until just a couple of weeks ago that he would do everything in his power to bring Barkat’s reign to an end. Last week Allalu signed an agreement with Barkat and was reinstated in the cozy armchair of deputy mayor with an accompanying salary. What happened in between? Nothing in particular, or at least nothing that justifies his change of heart.
As for the results of the decision, this is close to an earthquake. For the first time in 44 years, a radical leftist who declares openly that east Jerusalem is under occupation has been officially appointed to be in charge of that part of the city. Meir Margalit, for years a member of almost all the radical left-wing Israeli organizations and currently field coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions – the organization that helps Arab residents fight against demolition orders of illegal constructions – and very active in Yesh Gvul’s attempts to bring to justice IDF officers suspected of war crimes, an active member of the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement and a strong supporter of a divided capital, has been made responsible for implementing the municipality’s sovereignty in east Jerusalem.
Shaher Shabana, a resident of the A-Tur neighborhood near the Mount of Olives, says he is satisfied.
“We know he [Margalit] will not have too much power, but we know that he will do his best to help us and at least to listen to us,” he said this week.
And since reality provides us with the strangest situations, Margalit might well soon sit at the same roundtable of the city’s elected with Herzl Yehezkel, a tough right-wing member of the National Religious Party, and Aryeh King, representative of the National Union, a right-wing religious party, running together with the National Religious Party on the city council.
Asked how he would combine his personal opinions with the new task, Margalit says, “I am full of hope and fears. I want to focus on the welfare of the Arab residents of Jerusalem until there is a Palestinian state, hopefully created in September, and that Jerusalem would be its capital.”
On the issue of freezing the Gan Hamelech (King’s Garden) project in Silwan, which Meretz didn’t obtain in the agreement, Margalit and Allalu say that at least there is an understanding that any project concerning east Jerusalem will be brought first to the council.
It is interesting to note that the former holder of the east Jerusalem portfolio, city council member Yakir Segev (of Barkat’s party Jerusalem Will Succeed), declared at the same meeting, “I suggest we understand that if the mayor believes it is in the city’s best interest to hand over a portfolio from one council member to another, we should support him.”
THROUGH ONE of these strange situations, King and Margalit have a very good personal relationship. King is No. 5 on the National Religious Party’s city council list, after Yehezkel, who is chairman of the party’s Jerusalem branch and of the Har Homa neighborhood council.
The NRP has three seats: David Hadari, deputy mayor and head of the finance committee; Yair Gabbai, a registered member of Likud; and Edna Friedman, representative of the women’s organization Emunah.
For the last two months, there has been a war going on between Friedman and the rest of her party. She claims she has been elected for a complete term, while they say it was merely a rotation agreement and that as of last May she should have resigned and allowed Yehezkel to step up to the city council.
Friedman says that the agreement is not legal and that the people who elected her didn’t mean to see Yehezkel (or anyone else) in her seat. Yehezkel, who is not very popular in his own party, has nevertheless obtained the support of the party’s national leader, MK Zevulun Orlev, who held a press conference on Monday to clarify that Friedman should leave the city council immediately.
At the end of the press conference, Orlev issued a declaration stating that “Friedman is damaging the image of the party and of herself as an educator” and announced that the party is bringing her before a religious tribunal. He added that he hoped that this time at least she will listen to the rabbis if not to her party’s leaders.
In a phone conversation, Yehezkel confirmed what Friedman had complained about – that he would tell her employers that her attitude in this matter is not appropriate for a teacher.
In response to In Jerusalem’s question, Yehezkel said that Friedman is causing a lot of damage to herself and the movement. “She signed a letter of resignation and later canceled it – this is unacceptable. I call on her to stop this immediately, to resign from the council and to behave like a true representative of the values of our movement and in a manner that befits an educator. In any case, I will not accept her actions and will see to it that all her privileges on the city council are taken away from her as a first step.”
Asked how she felt about her own movement’s attitude towards her, Friedman said, “These are definitely outright threats, but I will not capitulate. Technically, they can’t do anything to force me out.”
This is true. Friedman cannot be fired or forced off the city council unless she agrees to leave of her own volition, and thus far she is not eager to do so.
But there’s more. Following the ugly battle over Friedman’s seat, King issued a public letter to the leaders of the NRP declaring that based on this case, his National Union party would probably cancel any collaboration with them in the coming elections, a threat taken very seriously by the NRP, which already suffers from an alarming lack of supporters among the religious-Zionist electorate.
King, who is very active on issues connected with the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem, wouldn’t mind if there was a way he could join the city council before the end of this term, something no one can deliver at the moment. That could only be obtained through a significant restructuring of the party, such as the departure of Yair Gabbai, No. 2 on the list.
Gabbai is a very independent member. He doesn’t owe them anything, doesn’t depend on the party for his livelihood (he’s a successful lawyer), and he never misses an opportunity to criticize his peers. The most recent example was at the last city council meeting, where the agreement between Barkat and Meretz was voted on. Gabbai, an open right-winger, expected Hadari and Friedman to vote against the nomination of Margalit, at least. To his surprise, they finally chose to abstain, and Gabbai was furious, accusing them both of cowardice.
But leaving the party? Of course not! First because the law doesn’t allow it, and secondly because Gabbai still has a lot of supporters in the party who are just waiting for the next election. A after that, who knows? So the vision of Margalit and King sitting side by side on the the city council, eventually collaborating on some (social) issues while fighting fiercely on political ones, although not totally impossible, will not happen tomorrow. True, the NRP did obtain something to cushion Margalit’s nomination. Barkat promised to create a new portfolio – encouraging and supporting the Jewish population in east Jerusalem, which would be in Hadari’s hands.
For the moment, this is just a vague promise, not a commitment.
One would think that all this would be enough for one city council. But there’s more. At the meeting last Thursday, Shas party leader Eli Simhayof was furious. But not because of the return of Meretz to the coalition. On the contrary, this was cause for Simhayof to celebrate.
“They have lost the last vestiges of credibility they still had with the public,” he explained, hinting at Allalu’s recent declarations against Barkat. “And in any case, for us Meretz is better than [the feminist and anti-haredi] Rahel Azaria, so we won our case.”
Simhayof’s anger resulted from the mayor’s decision to take the Shil file from him. Shil is the acronym for Citizens’ Advice Bureau, which is usually under the jurisdiction of the the social welfare department, whose portfolio Simhayof holds.
The step was taken without consulting him because he was out of the country. Simhayof had spent two days in Uman, Ukraine, and swore that he’d been available on his cell phone the entire time. He added that he didn’t mind the decision but couldn’t bear the humiliation of its being done without notifying him.
The problem was that nobody, at least among the elected officials, had any idea what Shil was.
Questions like “Who is Shil?” and “Who took him and to where?” filled the hall, creating a very strange atmosphere and serious doubts about how much our elected officials know about the administration they represent.
Toward the middle of the meeting, after the vote on Meretz, city council member and victim of all these moves Azaria showed up. For a brief moment, there was an air of consensus on the city council.