Corridors of power: Tension building

Construction controversy in east Jerusalem, this time in Arab neighborhood, is latest coalition crisis.

Nir Barkat east jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
Nir Barkat east jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
If you take the ancient road to Jericho, winding below the Mount of Olives cemetery, and continue as far as the security barrier, you will see a small Border Police base on your right, and less than 100 meters after it, two heavily guarded buildings. One is a two-story, not-too-old Arab structure; the second is a new building, also two stories. The first building was purchased a few years ago from its local Arab owner, the second one built illegally by and for a group of Jewish residents connected to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization.
These two small buildings, which are uninhabited so far except for the guards, lie at the heart of what may soon become the next national and perhaps even international controversy.
Kidmat Zion is the name of the tiny new Jewish neighborhood, a project that, as it turns out, now has the active support of Mayor Nir Barkat.
Many at Safra Square – and according to sources there, at the Prime Minister’s Office as well – fear that it may cause the government a lot of trouble (one of the reasons being that the two buildings are near what has long been considered the eventual parliament of the Palestinian state, if and when it establishes its capital in east Jerusalem’s Abu Dis neighborhood). But before it draws the rest of the world’s attention, this project may also lead to a new quake in the city council coalition.
It is already public knowledge that Barkat leads a clear policy of promoting any plan or development project in the city – whether it is located in west or east Jerusalem – arguing that if a city is reunified, plans should be promoted everywhere in it. But in this particular case, he seems to be trying to grasp more. Aware of the sensitive attitude that the three Meretz members of his coalition have regarding any plans on the east side of the city, the mayor invited them to his office recently and presented them with his comprehensive plan.
According to Meir Margalit, the Meretz member who holds the Arab residents’ portfolio on the city council, what Barkat is trying to promote is a package deal. The plan includes approval of both the Kidmat Zion project and large housing projects in three Arab neighborhoods.
Barkat, who announced that in this case he would allow council members to vote according to their conscience (free of coalition commitments), aims to obtain the greatest support possible for his plan. What the mayor expects is that the three Meretz members will – obviously – vote against Kidmat Zion but in favor of the Arab neighborhood projects, while the National Religious Party, and perhaps also Shas, will support Kidmat Zion and vote against or perhaps abstain on the Arab housing plans.
“This is a classic win-win situation in the eyes of the mayor,” says a source at the municipality – “if it works out, of course.”
The Meretz members’ immediate reaction was not too surprising. They decided not to leave the coalition for the moment, arguing that for now, nothing was happening on the ground, but announced that they would quit if and when the local building and constructing committee, headed by Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon, approved the plan.
But there is more: For a while now, Kahlon has been looking for an opportunity to promote the construction plans in the Arab neighborhoods.
So far, these plans have failed due to opposition from the city council’s rightwing factions, headed by Deputy Mayor David Hadari (Habayit Hayehudi). By linking the Kidmat Zion project to the Arab neighborhood plans, both Kahlon and Barkat hope to get the green light from the city council so the plan can move on to the next obstacle, the Interior Ministry’s District Construction Committee.
Since that ministry is in the hands of Shas, this would be the perfect time to get the support of that party’s representatives on the city council.
But alas, attentive readers probably remember that there has been bad blood between Barkat and the former leader of the city council’s Shas list, Eli Simhayof, which means that the chances some help will come from Shas’s benches are, let us say, very low.
Meanwhile, though, Margalit is very active.
Emerging as a pragmatic character in his list, he says he understands that in politics prices have to be paid from time to time. So he doesn’t immediately reject the eventuality of a Meretz vote against Kidmat Zion (or abstention at least), but for now he is shelving plans to leave the coalition in return for the mayor’s support for the Arab neighborhood construction plans.
What remains to be seen is (a) what the haredi (ultra- Orthodox) United Torah Judaism’s members will decide, (b) how Hadari will instruct his list’s members to vote and (c) what the Shas members will do.
Margalit is confident that his public support of the haredim in some recent cases (gender-separate buses and non-separate elections in the Ramot neighborhood council) will pay back now. He wants the plans for the Arab neighborhood approved.
Regarding the Kidmat Zion project, he says he is convinced that at some point, the geopolitical facts – or the Prime Minister’s Office – will put it on ice.