Barkat: 'Give terror no gains'

More than two years into the job, Jerusalem's Mayor Nir Barkat opens up on the vision and the challenges of running Israel's capital city.

Nir Barkat 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Nir Barkat 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A year ago, at a public interview in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, hi-tech businessman turned politician Nir Barkat discussed his personal life and career, explaining how he had come to run for, and ultimately win, the mayoralty of Jerusalem. Last Saturday night, at a similar event in the same venue, Barkat discussed the nitty-gritty of running the city – the strategy, the obstacles and the achievements in the job so far. Excerpts:
Beyond the horror and the sense of outrage over the attack at Itamar, from the specific perspective of the mayor of Jerusalem, is there concern about a heightened security risk?
Nir Barkat: The challenge with terrorism is, first, to go after the roots as aggressively as possible. Make sure the people associated with it are punished as severely as possible within the law. Second, we have to give terror no gains. We should prove and show that when we are attacked, something positive comes out of it, not only something negative. And last but not least, as hard as it is, we have to go on with life and show the terrorists that we will not be terrorized.
Now we’ve gone through this before, unfortunately, in Jerusalem and in the rest of the country, and we know that when the terrorists realize they gain nothing, we have a better chance of managing this process.
This whole slaughter, this brutality, reminds us that, unfortunately, we cannot trust that things like this will not happen again and that when we negotiate with our neighbors, we always have to remember that there are certain risks we must not take.
Our last such conversation here was a personal one – we focused on your life story and how you got to be mayor. This time, as advertised, we’re going to talk about the nitty-gritty of running what was described in advertisements for this event as “the most complex city in the world.” High on Jerusalemites’ common agenda, and I’m sure high on your agenda, is the light rail issue. This was a project that you inherited. Why did you decide you had to proceed with it, when is the thing going to start running, are you going to find a solution for Rehov Agrippas’s traffic problems, is it going to be safe?
When I took office, I asked to see the plans – to understand what I was signing off on. You would be shocked: There were no overall business charts or plans. Everyone was suing everyone. It was a management disaster.
I asked, “Who is accountable for the train?” and everyone looked at each other and told me that I was. I said, “Okay, if I’m accountable, I’d like to call the shots,” and we changed significant parts of the contract.
Today, the physical line is built, and we’re going into final testing. I believe as soon as April or May, we’ll start taking people [on a partial route] for free. Hopefully before the beginning of the school year, in August, it will be fully operational.
Just the one line?
One line, the red line, and we already got a commitment in the budget from the government of over NIS 200 million to plan the next two lines.
The green line – the green train line – starts from the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, goes through French Hill, joins the red line, and goes down from the Central Bus Station to the other university campus in Givat Ram. It goes through the new Kiryat Memshala (government complex) including Cinema City, the new library that’s going to go next to the museum, and then goes down to the sports complex, which includes the new arena, Teddy Stadium, tennis courts, an extended business area, and then goes to Gilo.
The blue line will start at the sports complex and will go through the industrial park, to Keren Hayesod, to King George, and cross to the hitech area in Har Hotzvim.
Can you give us a time scale?
The green line I believe we can do in five years. For the first line, the government outsourced the most important parts of the process, including the accountability. We had the worst of a private-public partnership. This time, the management system and methodology will be very different.
It’s almost a year to the day since Vice President Joe Biden was visiting and this huge diplomatic row erupted over Ramat Shlomo. Critics asserted that Israel had deliberately humiliated the Obama administration by timing the announcement of building there to coincide with the visit. Talk us through that saga from your perspective.
In my trips to Washington when I met with the administration and many [other] influential people, I started out by opening a map and showing them a master plan of the city.
Jerusalem will scale up in the next 20 years from 800,000 people to a million people, so that means we have to plan 50,000 apartments for natural growth of Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, and we also have to factor in the fact that we would like to scale up to 10 million tourists a year. So we need more hotels, more businesses and more industry. Our plan shows how we expand the different neighborhoods – the haredi neighborhoods, the Zionist neighborhoods, the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
By law, when somebody comes to the municipality and asks for a permit to build and it is aligned with the master plan of the city, I have to give them a license, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Now, [I ask people in Washington,] what exactly do you want me to do when you talk about a freeze? Do you want to freeze the new classrooms we’re building for Arab residents in east Jerusalem? Or do you want to freeze just Jewish buildings? Do you want to freeze by religion? It’s not constitutional – it’s not legal in the US under any law. So what exactly are you talking about? I say, “We will build for Jews and Arabs, this is the master plan; tell me if you have any questions.” They don’t usually come back and ask any questions.
[During] the Biden incident I said, “What are you talking about? Ramat Shlomo is [slated to get] 1,400 apartments, part of the 50,000 we have to plan for, and that same week we also gave permits to many Arab residents.”
When things like this happen, you stick to your strategy. You show the map. You say, “Here’s the plan, here’s what we’re committed to do; it’s an honest and fair plan, and we’re continuing to give licenses according to the master plan.”
The administration very publicly objected.
Not for the first time.
Not only that, but after Biden essentially accepted an apology from Israel about the timing and it appeared that the row was over, it was reignited by the president. So it’s pretty clear that even if you’re presenting a cohesive plan, the Americans strongly object to anything that they say is changing status quo issues prior to final status talks.
We’re different countries; we’re independent countries and it’s perfectly fair that we have differences of opinion. History shows that having a different opinion from the US isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think we should convince them.
The apology is not for what we did. The apology [was given] because we don’t want to hurt our friends. Sometimes even if you did not mean something and your friend is insulted, you apologize.
What is the status of those 1,400 units now?
They’re in the [pipeline]. My recommendation to the government is to not delay anything in the city of Jerusalem. If it’s the right thing, then do it and don’t hesitate. The government would like to have a little bit of leeway. A little bit is fine, but don’t wait.
Isn’t it true that in the aftermath of the Biden visit and that row, there has been a fairly drastic slowdown in building in Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line in Jerusalem?
There is a slowdown on things related to the government. Over twothirds of the buildings in Jerusalem are in private hands. When they come to the municipality, we don’t delay anything. When it’s government- owned, unfortunately things sometimes are slower than I would like. I [speak] out on this point.
You spent a lot of time planning fairly dramatic redevelopment in the Silwan area which would have involved dozens of demolitions of homes and was intended to create a more beneficial neighborhood for everybody, including the Arab residents, but the prime minister called you just before the Biden visit and suggested the timing was not right. You empathized with the concern over international fallout?
Do you know how many illegal structures there are in east Jerusalem? Probably over 20,000. The numbers are not clear because we don’t have a registry of all the buildings in east Jerusalem.
When I came into office, the state comptroller put a big report on my desk talking about King’s Garden [in Silwan] and the fact that there are 88 houses there in an area where houses are not allowed to be built. I had two bad options. One is to continue being an ostrich and not deal with the situation. The other extreme is we take a tractor and take 20,000 illegal structures to court. Both of these options are absurd.
What I started doing is to press the restart button and rezone the area. The Silwan hill has 658 buildings. Do you know how many have a license? Six.
I took the map and was as liberal as we could be towards the Arab residents. We lifted the height allowed for buildings from two stories to four stories, and that enables over 90 percent of the buildings to theoretically get a license.
When I took this to the council, it passed with no objection. The right-wingers and the left-wingers, each for their own reason, passed it. I brought it to the Knesset, and Uri Ariel and the Arab members of the Knesset both believe this is the right thing to do in Jerusalem. We passed that in the municipality, in the local committee. We also passed the King’s Garden in the local committee, and it is now waiting in line to be discussed in the district committee.
So does that mean that it’s out of your hands now?
It’s now in the central government’s hands. If they want, I will push it as aggressively as I can because it’s the right thing to do for the Arab residents. By the way, we’ve expanded this approach to four or five more neighborhoods in east Jerusalem with the acceptance of the Arab residents. We gain better planning and less negative friction with the residents.
They’re going to build anyway. They either build legally or illegally, and with my approach we can actually bring law and order and sense to building in east Jerusalem.
And yet when push comes to shove, you know that you won’t see the Arab residents of the 88 homes [to be demolished] in Silwan, for example, appearing on television saying, “We fully back the mayor in this project.” They will be crying outrage, and the region will protest.
In King’s Garden we’re actually enabling them [to build] much more than they could before. On the east side of the Kidron we’re going to allow them to build restaurants and places for tourists and a residential area. We’re going to build a community center at the southern part, and we’re going to keep that open park for the benefit of tourists and turn this whole [area] from a slum into something much more reasonable – for the benefit of residents and tourists.
How troubled are you by the weekly demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah? What does that do for the image of the city?
The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah is a legal dispute [over property ownership] between neighbors. The courts ruled. Everybody can demonstrate, as long as it’s legal, according to his beliefs. But the municipality did not have any stand [on this issue], nor are we part of this whole deal. If you think the Arab residents are right, go to court and convince the courts otherwise.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was prepared to offer very, very dramatic concessions in Jerusalem. It’s your position that Israel should not yield sovereignty in any part of today’s municipal Jerusalem. Where does that leave you vis-a-vis the current prime minister?Binyamin Netanyahu gave an interview last year on Channel 2, where he spoke about the question of the status of Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem being a “legitimate” question. It’s certainly something he’s prepared to discuss in substantive peace talks. He also said something in that interview about how no one wants to add a greater Arab populace to Jerusalem. Do you feel you’re a little bit apart on some of these matters?
I derive my strategy from a larger vision for the city of Jerusalem. I believe Jerusalem should open its gates and expand the experience for tourists throughout the world – the strategy of bringing 10 million tourists a year to Jerusalem to enjoy the atmosphere, the history, the spirituality, the culture. Jerusalem is second to no other city.
New York does 45 million tourists, Paris does 40 or 50 million, so we should do 10. In order to get to such numbers, you have to develop a plan to enable Jerusalem to be totally open. Focus on the common denominators and build the city properly.
God forbid, splitting a city. There’s not one good example in the world of a split city that ever worked. I come from the hi-tech sector, and this is called “dead on arrival.” There’s no way this could become successful. Focusing on the differences? This will never work.
Last year, thank God, we had big growth of tourism; we went up to three and a half million tourists, with a 24 percent increase in hotel occupancy.
When people come to me and say maybe we should [divide Jerusalem], I remind them all that it’s a slippery slope. It will never work. I challenge everybody to stick to the strategy and have a red line. Israel has been negotiating with the Arabs with lots of pink lines. Have one red line: it’s called Jerusalem. Don’t negotiate Jerusalem. That would be my recommendation to the government.
Does that not mean the prospect of reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians is “dead on arrival” if there is no room in your outlook for any compromise on Jerusalem?
It’s their decision as well. Look, I’m not negotiating with the Arabs and the Palestinians. I leave that to the prime minister. I want to strengthen his hand and enable him to do a good job for us. My personal approach on this is to have a red line which is very clear to the Jewish people, very clear to many of the Christians in the world, and stick to your guns. I believe by sticking to our guns it will increase the chances of having peace.
Sometimes when you want a deal, you have to know how to walk away and know how to say “no.” And if the deal is there, it will come back to you. But don’t cross your own red lines.
Let’s come away from the big global political issues relating to the city and come back to housing. This is a very expensive city in which to buy a home – sky-high demand and a limited supply of real estate. How are you tackling the critical issue of affordable housing?
First, make Jerusalem attractive. When you make Jerusalem attractive, through culture, through education, that helps get more of the young population to want to stay here.
In conjunction with that, when the economy’s becoming a bullish marketplace and a place for more entrepreneurs and more businesses, that [helps]. We all have to remind ourselves that apartments in Tel Aviv are not cheaper than Jerusalem, but the young people in Tel Aviv have the currency to pay. So it’s a lot about getting great jobs and getting our economy to fly.
The price of housing is determined in the free market, so the role of the municipality and the government is to bring more apartments into the marketplace. There are three things we’re doing. The first is regulating and not enabling the free market to go wild, except for high-end, expensive apartments. By legislation and regulation, we can have at least 20 percent of the buildings in big projects be tailored to the young population.
You can enforce that?
We have some challenges. We’re more successful on the non-formal path than the formal path. We haven’t solved all the legal problems.
It’s a cumbersome process, but we’re getting there.
The second thing: people who don’t live in their homes throughout the year – people who live in North America and other places and come only on the holidays. We will use these holidays to send them a letter again [urging them to rent out their homes to students]. I’m willing to consider twisting arms. If all these apartments are left unoccupied, they’re hurting the city of Jerusalem – the barber who has less hair to cut, the kindergarten that has fewer children enrolled, the supermarket that has lower sales. Usually students at the Hebrew University or other colleges can maintain the quality of houses very well.
We’re also now building towers of office space at the entrance of the city. The New City is going to have 500,000 square meters of office space between the Central Bus Station and Binyenei Ha’uma, and we’re going to shift more and more offices that occupy apartments in the center of the city, rezone them, push them to high-rise office buildings and free up apartments.
You mentioned job creation and the related issue of secular flight. How successful are you in creating employment opportunities here, and what is the balance of population trends? Are secular and modern Orthodox Jerusalemites leaving the city? Is the city increasingly becoming a haredi and Arab city, or have you been managing to offset that trend?
I have had the pleasure of working with Professor Michael Porter from the Harvard Business School, one of the leading professors in the world for competitive strategies.
Together we built a strategy for the city of Jerusalem, which is to develop the business clusters that create jobs in order to make Jerusalem more bullish.
One of them is a call for tourism.
Increasing tourism to 10 million tourists a year is the equivalent of 140,000 new jobs. This year, we saw the hotel industry hiring many more people. There’s 30 percent growth in new business applications, a lot of them tailored to cultural tourism.
The second area where Jerusalem has competitive advantages is health and life sciences. The Hebrew University is one of 10 leading universities worldwide in patents in health and life sciences.
Some $50 million is invested in Jerusalem in generic research. We’ve created a cluster of services that connect between research, hospitals and industry.
Netanyahu agrees with the strategy, and we’re now aligning tax incentives and enabling these two business clusters to become successful.
Turning a city like Jerusalem around takes time. You need a little bit of patience.
We’re also working to expand areas for industry. For example, we’ve requested from the government to take the Atarot Airport area, which will never be an airport anymore, and turn it into an industrial zone. It’s 800,000 square meters of industry. It can [accommodate] over 20,000 people alone. That’s in addition to the 500,000 square meters of office space at the entrance of the city. Next to Givat Shaul, there’s the municipal infrastructure logistics [headquarters].
We want to move that to Atarot and add 120,000 square meters of new office space, high-rise buildings, for hi-tech.
Tell us about the appointment of Eli Simhayoff as a deputy mayor, even though he’s a suspect in the Holyland affair. Is that not a troubling appointment for you?
He’s the head of Shas; he had over 30,000 people vote for him. I have an agreement with Shas that they’re part of the coalition. I sat with other council members in the municipality and I said, “Here are the facts. He hasn’t been indicted. They’ve not yet charged him. What do you all think?” The vast majority of the council agreed with me that we should let him have his chance.
Are we facing a potential international row about the building work at the ramp going up to the Mughrabi Gate to the Temple Mount?
The Mughrabi Bridge worked for decades. One day, I think in 2004, the path fell a bit and somebody had to strengthen it. Because somebody tried to make a shortcut in the process, it was stopped by the courts. And it went to the local committee and passed, and passed the district committee, and passed all the relevant processes, and it’s waited three or four years.
The current, temporary bridge is dangerous. It’s not complementary to the Kotel or to the Temple Mount. It’s a technical thing to go back and make it work the way it worked before. I strongly recommended the government to go back and work on the path of the old bridge. It’s the right thing to do.
You sought to get more money from the central government for the city. Is it simply more money that should be allocated, or are there more areas where you could get more support than you’re getting? Would you get it if you were a Likud official rather than an independent?
In the last two years, in two budgets, we’ve increased the municipal collection of revenue. But the government was imposing more costs on us and decreasing its share.
Jerusalem is the biggest city in the country. We pay, individually, by far the highest shekel per meter in municipal taxes in the country. So we’re No. 1 [out of the 16 largest cities] in the residents’ contribution to the revenue. But when you take all the revenue we have and divide it per person, we’re number 16 – the lowest investment per capita relative to the other cities.
Our goal should be to get both the municipal tax and the investment per person to be the average of the 15. We need NIS 1.4 billion to be average. The government’s part in helping Jerusalem dropped from NIS 185 million to 170m. I said, “You can’t do that.” Eventually the government understood. They increased their share by NIS 40m. to NIS 210m. We have a few other ideas working together to increase our revenue.
Finally, I should ask you whether you are going to seek re-election, although I think the answer is obvious.

And what’s it been like? You’ve now been in this job for two years: Does it eat up every bit of your life? Are you enjoying it?
It’s much better than I expected. The coalition is 27 of the 31 council members. We put everything on the table. No deals are made under the table. It’s very counterintuitive for politicians, but it’s very straightforward for people who want to work together. And it works.
This is a region that is used to a win-lose, zero-sum game. We’ve tried to bring some win-win thinking.
People tell me that the city is very complicated and complex to run relative to other cities. I don’t have that perspective. I know only the city of Jerusalem. It’s a fascinating city and very challenging. But I feel very optimistic that as long as we do the right things, other things will straighten themselves out.
(Transcribed by Joshua Hamerman.)