Checks and Balances

Despite pockets of rebellion in Safra Square, next year’s budget has been approved.

Money cash Shekels currency 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Money cash Shekels currency 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The last city council meeting of the year is like the big clean-up before Passover – clearing up all the issues on the city’s agenda and, to cap it all, the vote on next year’s budget. Although it is not written anywhere, this vote is in fact a confidence vote for the mayor. By law, a mayor whose budget proposal is rejected by city council members remains the mayor. But on the rare occasion that this situation has occurred, the mayor usually resigned and there was a new election.
But don’t sound the alarm – this is not the case with the Jerusalem city council. However, little gusts of rebellion have been wafting through Safra Square for the past few weeks.
Nothing really serious – no audacious plans to dismantle the coalition, no attempt to stage a palace revolution, not even any overt criticism, but just a vague sense of dissatisfaction. “A general feeling that issues are being settled behind our backs,” ventures one coalition member.
Dissatisfaction, perhaps even some frustration, is apparently what a few members of the coalition are experiencing, more precisely the haredi representatives and their peers in Meretz. And if Mayor Nir Barkat hasn’t displayed any sort of concern, it’s not because he is too complacent, as Barkat’s coalition is built on the strong foundations of vested interests.
That being said, a few things do bother the haredi and the Meretz representatives, and these issues came up at the last city council meeting.
First, the haredim. Besides the resentment over the separate elections for the Ramot neighborhood council (which were ultimately canceled anyway), the eight members of United Torah Judaism and the four members of Shas are furious about the Arena project, and that’s not new. But now they have been presented with an excellent opportunity to express their disapproval, following the embarrassing discovery that millions more shekels must be added to the original budget to complete the ambitious sports project.
“It’s not big news that we are not in favor of it,” says Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus, head of UTJ, “but now we are required to approve additional funding without knowing for sure whether this is the end of it, without any guarantee that this won’t happen again. We can’t play with public money like this.”
You don’t need to be a mind reader to know that the fact that the planned arena will be open on Shabbat will be opposed by the haredi members. Last week, Pindrus surmised that the coalition members (including his party) would not dare oppose Barkat point blank but they did, and the mayor had no choice but to accept their conditions – namely, to appoint an outside expert to assess what is needed to complete the project and exactly how much money will be required.
“It’s not so dramatic,” says a member of UTJ.
“After all, it is about how to best use public money. Everybody comes out squeaky clean: the mayor, who accedes to a democratic request; and we, the haredim, who this time don’t look as if we are opposing a secular project but just care about the taxpayers’ money.”
The source adds, “Ultimately, it is a discreet message that everyone around here understands.
The campaign for the next elections has begun. From now on we will see more of such things from time to time, and we know that these are the rules of the game.”
As for the Meretz members, they were far less successful in swaying the mayor, despite the important issue that rankled them. Not only did they not succeed in changing his mind, but they even got a special lesson in politics from their haredi peers.
On the agenda of the meeting was the decision to close the Prazot public housing company.
Meretz members were sure they had the support of the haredim to vote against the decision, in return for their agreement to vote for an independent expert for the Arena project.
What happened at voting time is still unclear. City council member and Prazot board member Meir Margalit says he didn’t see any haredi hands voting with Meretz on the issue, and Prazot will officially be shut down by the end of this month.
When he asked haredi members what happened, they swore to him that some of them did vote with Meretz but don’t understand how the decision was approved nonetheless.
On Sunday Margalit heard that a few Likud members had gone to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and warned him that the closure of Prazot would cost the party a high price on election day. Whether the Likud connection had an effect or something else, on Sunday Margalit was informed by the mayor’s office that the Treasury had approved NIS 35 million to purchase apartments for eligible homeless families, including two shelters for homeless individuals known to the welfare department.
“That’s nice,” says Margalit, “but we know that Prazot has some NIS 140m. [in its coffers]. So where is it?”