City politics

How Mayor Nir Barkat lost the ministry he never had to Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Nir Barkat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Nir Barkat
Most residents may not have noticed it, but the city has recently been at the center of a bitter struggle that has very little to do with its status, welfare or advancement. Like a saga from the Middle Ages, Jerusalem has become the coveted quarry of two intrepid warriors – an MK and a mayor – who have, for the past few days, exchanged highly publicized onslaughts in a battle that involves a lot of pride, insults and frustration, leaving – at least for the moment – the city and its residents with no gains.
This is the unpleasant conclusion of the scrimmage between Mayor Nir Barkat and MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who was appointed minister for Jerusalem affairs last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Against Barkat’s wishes and contrary to his entreaty not to do so, the decision was made as a last resort to complete the new government.
Erdan was appointed as public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy minister on Monday, 11 days after the rest of the cabinet. At the 11th hour, Netanyahu had to give Elkin something in order to obtain his agreement to cede the Strategic Affairs Ministry given to Erdan to convince him to join the government. Netanyahu had nothing else to offer Elkin but the position of Jerusalem affairs minister. In so doing, he had no choice but to rescind his own previous decision to shut down the ministry and include its issues in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Jerusalem is not some kind of consolation prize,” a very angry and frustrated Barkat wrote in a statement last Friday, following a long and exhausting late-night meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence, which ended with Netanyahu’s decision to reactivate the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and to give the portfolio to Elkin. Barkat was there in a last-ditch effort to prevent that decision but had to finally admit that he had failed. The mayor did not give In Jerusalem a further statement this week.
At first glance, this might look like yet another episode in the complex travail of government-making or just another unpleasant aspect of political life. However, sources at Safra Square have more to add, hinting at some old but still active rivalries, personal settling of accounts and simple but sound hatred.
“Barkat is a member of the Likud,” says one of the sources, “but in some ways he is still kind of an outsider. I’m not sure Barkat is aware of that, but Netanyahu probably is.”
By “outsider,” he means that the business style with which the mayor manages and controls the municipality and its administration doesn’t take into account the interests – or the pride – of the party members at Safra Square, at the Prime Minister’s Office or in the Knesset.
“Barkat was and still is a businessman, but he is surrounded by politicians, and they play by different rules,” concludes the source, himself a long-time employee at city hall.
In short, what happened last week was not so unpredictable.
“But the idea to offer the portfolio of Jerusalem affairs to convince Elkin was not an innocent one,” adds the source, hinting that some Likud members felt rejected by Barkat becoming mayor.
“The problem is not a personal one,” explains Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, “it’s a matter of doing what’s best for the city.”
Once there is a minister for Jerusalem affairs, every decision, project or budget must be approved by that minister and the city council.
“It’s like managing a city with two heads; there is no way it can work,” says Turgeman.
That was why Barkat proposed that Netanyahu not man the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry but keep it in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office instead. Barkat even proposed that all the money required by such a ministry be covered by the municipality. Netanyahu had totally accepted the proposal, and Barkat was convinced that the agreement between them was sealed. Until last week.
NETANYAHU HAD announced his decision to keep Jerusalem affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office and to establish close cooperation with Barkat on these matters at least twice.
The mayor, who believed from the beginning of his tenure that there was no need for such a ministry, had, on top of it, a bad experience with the last minister in charge of that portfolio, Naftali Bennett (economics minister in the former government). The disagreements between the two had reached such a level that Barkat didn’t attend the last year’s launch of the shuttle service to the Western Wall financed by Bennett’s ministry.
Barkat believes that a minister for Jerusalem affairs, whoever it may be, would simply harm the mayor’s work and at the very least not contribute anything.
“It is a waste of public money,” Barkat used to say at every relevant occasion. “We have much better things to do for the city with that money.”
The budget of the ministry is estimated at NIS 10 million to NIS 15m. for salaries, offices and expenses. The ministry itself doesn’t have an operating budget.
In fact, Netanyahu’s first idea was to rethink the status of the portfolio so that it would be in the hands of the mayor, a direction that suited Barkat’s plans perfectly. The first time the plan was suggested was in November 2014, when a leak from the PMO gave the first hint of it.
At that time, Barkat avoided any official reaction, but the word at Safra Square was that if it could work out, it would be the perfect solution, creating a direct line between Netanyahu and Barkat and using the infrastructure of the administration at city hall without any further expenses and applying Barkat’s policy and plans for the city. But then somebody remembered that the law doesn’t allow the combination of the two positions – mayor and minister – and the project was shelved. In fact, Barkat was discreetly asked if he would, in that situation, agree to give up his position as mayor and take on the portfolio. Barkat’s answer was no, which he officially declared at the end of December, repeating that under no circumstances would he quit the municipality.
As for Bennett’s term at the head of the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, it seems that as far as Barkat was concerned, it was not an easy one. The two couldn’t come to an agreement on almost any issue, from appointing a new president of the Jerusalem Development Authority to appointing a new CEO, thereby thwarting quite a few large-scale projects for Jerusalem.
It is worth mentioning that the former president of the JDA was Moshe Lion, a rival of Barkat’s in the mayoral election and for years considered close to the prime minister (Lion had been the director of the PMO). The JDA is, in fact, the sole body that brings in the large sums of money required for the largest development projects in the city; therefore, appointing its president and its CEO is crucial for the effective functioning and viable cooperation with city hall. (A new CEO was finally named in March. As for the president, Barkat named himself as temporary head immediately after the last elections that removed Bennett from the city’s affairs.)
While Bennett was in office, the lack of cooperation continued. But confident in the future, given the prime minister’s agreement that in the next government there would be no minister for Jerusalem affairs, Barkat presented his Jerusalem 2020 plan to the prime minister and received, at the government meeting held at the Israel Museum on Jerusalem Day, a new confirmation of the cancellation of the Jerusalem affairs portfolio with full approval (including financial) of the 2020 Plan. Nothing could have looked better and more promising for Barkat’s plans.
For now, Barkat, who has accused Elkin of “squeezing the prime minister for his own pride,” can’t do anything more. What remains to be seen is what will happen next.
Officially, no instructions have been given as to how to act toward the new minister’s personnel. Off the record, quite a few high-ranking officials at Safra Square admit that what is expected from them is simply not to cooperate with the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry.