Farewell and welcome

After 10 years under Mayor Nir Barkat, what’s next?

Mayor Nir Barkat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After almost 10 years as mayor of Jerusalem (preceded by five years as head of the opposition at city council), Nir Barkat has announced that he is moving to the national level of Israeli politics, as a member of the Likud. During these years at Safra Square, he had his successes, such as:
1) The Barkat Effect: A young, successful hi-tech “golden boy,” secular and rich, he believed that being Jerusalem’s mayor when it seemed doomed to become the next Bnei Brak was important enough to devote a decade of his life to it (with no salary). He has had a tremendous impact. No fewer than six candidates for the position, four of them secular, are the direct result of Barkat’s engagement with the city.
2) Culture: The atmosphere at outdoor events has improved. Cultural life has expanded; the city has become vibrant with events all year long. Barkat enabled the funding and deserves much of the credit.
There are also failures:
1) Cleanliness: Barkat’s greatest failure is probably sanitation. Despite his efforts, plans and projects, the city is not clean. There is some improvement compared to the days of Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, but still, almost everywhere, especially in the Old City, the most important tourist site in the city and the country, there is still garbage in the streets and the sight is repugnant.
2) Transparency: One of the key issues in Barkat’s campaigns was transparency. He pledged there would be a partnership between city administration and residents. Things started out promisingly on this front but lost momentum. Toward the end, he banned protesters from city council meetings and moved meetings to a hall that could lawfully bar the public.
Generally, the city looks better, life here has improved and some laudable projects have been implemented with Barkat’s direct involvement and financing, such as Mesila Park and the dramatic change in investment of the Transportation Ministry for the development of the city’s public transportation (including the recent decision to break the Egged monopoly inside the capital and enable eight lines of sherut taxis, additional express bus lines and more).
Barkat benefited from relative calm on the security front, which contributed to tourism growth. Even if his vision of 10 million tourists here a year remains unfulfilled, tourist numbers are high and rising. Economic life in the city center has recovered, more hotels are built and open, and on most weekday evenings, tables at any restaurant have to be reserved in advance.
Criticism was expressed following Barkat’s tendency to promote large and spectacular events, such as the marathon and the Formula One race. Regarding the marathon, considering the large numbers of participants, many of them foreigners, and despite the temporarily blocked roads, this is a success story, too.
Barkat led an educational revolution – computers, tablets and computerized programs are now integral to the school system as part of his vision for modern hi-tech education. On his watch, the numbers of pupils in the haredi stream have continued to grow and attendance in the public stream (religious and secular alike) is also registering slow but steady growth.
On the other hand, for the past three years, formulating the city budget had devolved into a street war between Barkat and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, with strikes, garbage in the streets and misuse of taxpayer money on a campaign against Kahlon’s policy.
This year’s episode included a mini-diplomatic scandal requiring the urgent involvement of the prime minister to avert a crisis with the Christian world, as Barkat sent municipality employees to seize church bank accounts.
Barkat hasn’t really tried to implement the High Court of Justice’s 2007 decision to evacuate Jewish residents from Beit Yonatan in the Silwan neighborhood; generally speaking, he has done a lot to promote several projects of Jewish residents inside predominately Arab neighborhoods such as E-Tur and Silwan. Regarding the improvement of infrastructure, the budgets and the sanitation in Arab neighborhoods, despite his repeated declarations that his obligation is to the entire city, including the east side, not much has been done so far to improve conditions, apart from construction of a few new and well-equipped schools there.
Yet more than 3,500 classrooms in both the haredi and the Arab sectors are still lacking, and recently, Barkat – acting more as a hi-tech manager than a politician – took a NIS 1 billion loan to build as many classrooms as possible, instead of waiting for the government’s action, whose duty it actually is.
Barkat’s plan to place haredi kindergartens in mixed neighborhoods and locate haredi schools and high schools on the seams of these neighborhoods has been largely unwelcomed by the opposition as well as some lists that were until then still part of his coalition. As a result, Barkat, who launched this council in 2013 with 30 (out of 31) seats in the coalition, ends it with a coalition of only 20 seats.
WHAT NOW? With Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman distanced from Safra Square and still under investigation, and veteran (and retired) former Meretz leader Pepe Alalu announcing his candidacy last week, the electoral picture is becoming a bit clearer. The local branch of Meretz refused to endorse Alalu’s candidacy; as a result, the legendary leader of Meretz in the city for the past 40 years has quit the party and is running independently.
For the first time since its defeat in 2008, the haredi sector is considering running a candidate of its own. The internal debate is rather stormy and nothing will be decided before the end of the summer (the election is scheduled for October 30). If the rabbis choose to proceed, the next step will be to decide who has the best chance – Itzhak Pindrus or Yossi Daitch, both presently deputy mayors for the United Torah Judaism list.
In the “pluralist” sector, there is talk about the necessity to form a large list – including Yerushalmim, Hitorerut, Meretz – that could block the haredim, but so far, no action. Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut), Yossi Havilio (Saving Jerusalem), Avi Salman (a former Jerusalem city attorney) and Alalu are not ready yet for such a step. Meanwhile, Ramadan Dabash, head of Beit Sahur’s local council, is working hard on compiling a list of Arab residents to the council – a step that if indeed occurs, will be a first in Jerusalem’s political life.
The three newest names added to the list of possible candidates are MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), MK Dudi Amsalem (Likud) and perhaps the most interesting – Minister for Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs MK Ze’ev Elkin.