Contented but not complacent

Mayor Nir Barkat is satisfied he’s serving all of the city’s sectors, though he acknowledges there is more work to be done.

Nir Barkat (photo credit: Marc israel Sellem)
Nir Barkat
(photo credit: Marc israel Sellem)
Four years ago, after spending five years as head of the opposition while Uri Lupolianski was mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat was elected to lead the city. Today, after four years on the job, he is the only declared candidate for next year’s election.
During those four years, there have been many significant changes at Safra Square, and the impact has been felt by the city and its residents. In addition to what some call the mayor’s “hi-tech” administrative style, there is no doubt that Barkat has made good on many of his pre-election commitments. The city’s cultural life has undergone a dramatic change – to the extent that it is no easy task to list the festivals and events that take place here. Barkat’s achievements regarding making the city more attractive to students and young families are remarkable, but he is far from reaching the goals he set himself. Affordable housing for youth is still a distant dream, and the municipality’s initiative to double property tax for unoccupied houses as an incentive for owners to offer them for rent was not adopted by the Interior Ministry.
On the positive side, Beit Mazia, which was inaugurated last year, has become home to three theater companies comprising home-grown actors – definitely an achievement.
In another sphere, Barkat’s plans to build throughout the city, including in Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line, have met with searing opposition from the Left, as well as the international community, but he was adamant in an interview with In Jerusalem this week that there was no other way of meeting the needs of the growing city than to build in east Jerusalem – for both Jews and Arabs.
“Regardless of the world’s perception on this issue, we must continue building according to the plan, in an honest way, equally for all the residents of this city, for Jews and non-Jews alike,” he asserts.
On the subject of his coalition, the mayor was generous with his praise and compliments, and it seems that his next list will include more of the same – people who do not challenge his policies. When talking about his coalition, even with regard to the haredim and Meretz, whose members never miss an opportunity to declare that they are trying to replace him, Barkat took the attitude of a benevolent father, as if he is always ready to forgive his critics as long as they play by the rules. For those who do not understand that point, there is always the door.
Despite the criticism, some of the mayor’s achievements cannot be disregarded. Barkat, who certainly does not need his mayor’s salary, has chosen to remain here and take responsibility for the city. The education system is improving, more young families are remaining or moving here, and the economic situation in the downtown area is recovering.
And he still has one more year to go.
As we approach the end of 2012, what do you see as your biggest achievements this year?
We are beginning to see the fruit of our investments during these last four years. There are new trends in the city, [and] we are witnessing the beginnings of what we want to change here. We are looking to the future, and I believe that we will see some of these trends get stronger in the next year. We are assessing our first term, to see what has happened here.
In the fields of culture and tourism... there has been a substantial improvement. This year, for example, Jerusalem has outstripped Tel Aviv and Haifa for the first time. We have had four times more cultural events than four years ago. I believe the atmosphere in the city is changing, certainly in terms of culture, and I mean not only events, but also the cultural institutions, which no longer, as they have had to in the past, struggle for survival. Most of them are now in a much better position and are [even] flourishing.
The wide range of festivals in the city – The Festival of Light, music festivals, the Balabasta – has an additional effect, of which some are not aware, perhaps, in the significant growth of the city’s economy.
This is a city with 8% annual growth; we’re talking about doubling the number of those employed in the city, from an average of 5,000 during the previous [mayor’s] term, to 10,000 jobs that are now added in the city each year. That’s a dramatic improvement, so in terms of the economics in the city, in culture, tourism and sports, we can see that there is a major leap forward.
You can also see the major investments in infrastructure, which will enable us to accomplish another significant leap forward in coming years. We’re talking about launching a few new compounds – for sports [the Arena and renovations at Teddy Stadium], and at the western entrance to the city, a brand-new business center, not to mention the improvements in the city center, which has changed dramatically. We can already see the positive commercial trends there.
Taking the issue of education, to my great satisfaction, we are seeing very good results there. I can tell you that in all the fields in which we set a goal for significant improvements, we have achieved almost all our aims, and of course [there has been a] reversal of the trend [of stagnation in state and state-religious schools]. For the first time in several decades, we have opened new classes in the public stream this year – secular and religious – after years of decline. Even in east Jerusalem, we are seeing [positive] changes.
Finally, I would say that we have managed to enlarge the pie so that every sector gets more, instead of continuing the old method, which only reduced each sector’s portion. That’s the fundamental change I have introduced here....
People are beginning to think that perhaps, after all, something good is happening in Jerusalem.
So yes, I am ending 2012 with great satisfaction, and with high expectations for an even better year.
As we near the end of your term, is there anything you regret not having achieved?
There is tremendous work yet to be done. We are still too dependent on the government. For example, regarding affordable housing, I really hope that the upcoming Knesset elections will enable a real change and serious reforms in this field, for the young generation and everyone.
I would like to see more economic incentives here.
I’ll go even further – the whole system of budgeting between the local councils and the government, to my understanding, and especially in regard to Jerusalem, needs a profound change. It’s time to introduce a differential system for budget allocations; there’s a need to change the whole conception of how the money should be distributed. If we reach an understanding on these issues, it will bring about a tremendous change in our capacity to improve the city’s economic situation. This hasn’t yet happened, to my regret, but it is on the Treasury’s agenda – we are already [nearly] there.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but these are things you’ve said right from the beginning of your term, even when you were the head of the opposition.
Why haven’t you been able to bring about a change after so many years? You said that Jerusalem cannot be treated like any other city, that it deserves special attention and different opportunities. But it seems that nothing has happened.
That’s true. But some things have nevertheless changed. The major changes are in the investment and developmental budgets allocated by the government – there we have managed to convince the government to change its previous attitude, and both sides are working together in full cooperation, with considerable results. And I am grateful to the prime minister for this – the Marom Plan [which gives Jerusalem NIS 350 million over seven years] is a great achievement. Also the special yearly grant for Jerusalem has been raised and fixed and approved despite the economic difficulties.
What hasn’t changed yet is the city’s budget, which is still based on the somewhat anachronistic system of 75% from the state and 25% from the city, while preventing us from distributing these according to the real situation on the ground.
In short, this system is the same in every city – so if you take the welfare budget, for example, the very rich city of Tel Aviv uses 25% of its budget for that, while the same percentage, applied to Jerusalem, which has a serious welfare problem [the city is still the poorest in the country], [means] each [welfare recipient] gets less than in Tel Aviv. The same applies to fields – education, culture, etc. We want to change that. I’ve been holding talks with those responsible in the government. The professional staff at the Treasury agree with me, but so far, we haven’t managed to make any changes.
And what about the political level? Can you say that the relations between the municipality and the government are good?
Of course, there are no problems. Well, with most of them. And anyway, it is legitimate that there are sometimes different opinions.
We are not a banana republic, so all in all, the situation is very good.
Speaking of the government’s plans, what is your reaction to the government’s announcement to promote construction plans in Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line? Does this fit in with your plans?
Let’s talk about this city’s vision. Today, Jerusalem has 800,000 residents, and within 20 years we will have about a million residents.
This city has to plan construction that will enable the population to live here, for locals who wish to remain here, or those who wish to move here. That means that within the next 20 years we have to build some 50,000 houses, according to the city’s population: about a third for the Arab residents and twothirds for the Jewish population.
To that end, we can build up, according to the master plan, away from the Holy Basin, and we can enlarge existing neighborhoods.
And that’s exactly what we are doing. We are building according to the city’s new master plan, which has been prepared and advanced by three mayors – two before me, and me – so I don’t understand why anybody should be surprised by the decision to build in the existing neighborhoods. I was totally opposed to the construction freeze, [and] I am opposed to any further construction freeze. We have to build, period.We know this is your position, you have never hidden it.However, these recent construction plans have dragged Jerusalem into the center of international controversy. Wasn’t this, the perception of Jerusalem as a conflicted city, exactly what you wanted to end?
I reject this interpretation. I don’t accept it at all. Please note, only last week I visited two Arab neighborhoods. I inaugurated a public library in Sur Bahir and in A-Tur [and] we are developing and promoting projects in Silwan. We are doing that in all the neighborhoods in Jerusalem. I repeat, all the neighborhoods, including Arab neighborhoods.
But it doesn’t appear that way in the international press.
So the international press doesn’t reflect it.The city’s image has been affected.
I understand that; I do not argue with this fact. I just don’t accept the claims of those who accuse us. For the simple reason that I, as mayor of Jerusalem, know that my obligation is toward all the population, to enable all residents of this city to live here and to improve their quality of life, and to build for them, period.But today, building in Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line is causing controversy.
I categorically reject this assumption. I support the prime minister’s plans to continue building according to the [master] plan.
What can change this perception?
I don’t know. But one thing I can tell you, that regardless of the world’s perception on this issue, we must continue to build according to the plan, in an honest way, equally for all the residents of this city, for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Tell us about construction for Arab residents. In the master plan there are a few thousand housing units approved, yet we don’t see any of these being built. What happened?
Let me remind you that we have submitted several construction plans to the Interior Ministry’s district planning and constructing committee, and those projects are still awaiting the committee’s approval. Unfortunately this is not yet happening, and I am critical of this.
Can you tell us what the status of the Gan Hamelech (King’s Garden) project is?
It is still waiting for the approval of the district committee, like the plans for Silwan. And if you scrutinize the situation, you will discover that many of those who once opposed that plan are in favor of it today. This plan, which will benefit the residents and improves their economic status, is awaiting approval. I am aware that the residents there were once suspicious, fearing that this municipality had a concealed plan to expel them – [but] today, the residents of this neighborhood [Silwan] know that our intentions are good, and [we] are advancing plans that are good for them – roads, schools, kindergartens, [in cooperation] with their community centers and local councils. So today they trust us.
And I believe that one day this plan will be implemented.
Let’s get back to local politics. The general picture seems quite positive, but despite that, your coalition partners, both haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and secular, are openly looking for a replacement for you. Even if we disregard the unlikelihood of such a plan succeeding, how do you explain this? Have you made so many enemies?
I am focusing on one thing: how to improve the city of Jerusalem. I have chosen to lead this city with a very broad coalition; this is a city that has never belonged to one tribe in our history, so the right thing to do is to lead it with and for all the tribes together. Obviously it is much more difficult [that way]. I am aware that things would have been much easier with a narrower coalition. But that wouldn’t be the right thing for Jerusalem. Even if the price is that I have to face criticism here and there.
But two of your deputies openly say that they are looking for a candidate to run against you.
Okay. I hear you, it’s okay.
You’re not bothered by this?
Certainly not. And I will not change my position on this issue [a broad coalition] in the next term. As long as all the partners are willing to play by the rules of the game, I will seek the largest possible coalition. Those who will not play by the rules will have to remain outside.
Let’s talk about your next party list. You didn’t exactly have impressive public figures this time. Will this change?
I do not agree with you. The party’s task is to support and help the mayor. The members of my party have helped me a lot.Still, this is a very anemic list.
Again, I don’t agree. These are very capable people. Let’s not forget that they are all volunteers, so they have some limitations, but the bottom line is clear. When I need them, they show up and I can rely on them.Including some of them who are businessmen and may harbor some personal agendas of their own?
There are public rules and limits....
There’s no question that they are not breaking the law, we know you are personally committed, but still, it may create some discomfort.I want to take this opportunity to thank publicly all the members of my list, and not only my list, but all the city councillors, who are so committed to this city and its residents. They work hard on a voluntary basis – people outside are perhaps not aware of this. I am thankful even if they have some criticism here and there. I accept that.
Your coalition partners from United Torah Judaism complain that you haven’t done enough to offer them housing solutions in their neighborhoods, hence their “invasion” of secular neighborhoods. What is your reaction?
All the sectors in this city deserve affordable housing solutions.
Haredim, Arabs, all the population. I agree, if we don’t build for Jews, they will leave the city. If we don’t build for haredim, they will either leave the city or find solutions in non-haredi neighborhoods.
And if you don’t build for Arabs, they will build illegally.
So we have to build, for all the sectors.
Ramat Shlomo is a good answer for the needs of the haredi sector.
This is my policy. Each time we cannot provide a construction permit, it has an impact on the city. That’s why I say let’s build, and for all.
But what does the international community say, in reality? They hint, “Don’t build for Jews in Jerusalem.” They do not argue with approving construction for the Arabs in Jerusalem. I see this as disgraceful. This is unacceptable, and I openly reject that request, and I criticize the European Union and the US administration for this. I refuse to accept the implication that we should freeze construction here only for Jews.
I ask them, should we freeze the construction of roads, of classrooms we plan in the Arab neighborhoods? Or should we first ask residents – are you Jewish or Arab, and if he is a Jew not to build for him, but if he is an Arab, then we should build? And what do you really mean by freezing? But I don’t get any answer, probably because they realize it is chutzpah. They understand that under any law – whether British, European, American or Israeli law, it is unacceptable to freeze construction in Jerusalem.
And that is the source of our problems here, for all sectors.
So what is your solution?
To build, and to reject all the criticism.