Feeling the pressure

Meretz is back on the city council, but it is unclear what the party gets out of the agreement.

Barakat and meretz_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Barakat and meretz_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Monday evening Mayor Nir Barkat signed an agreement that brought Meretz back into the coalition. And on Thursday (after press time), the Jerusalem city council was expected to approve the nomination of its leader, Pepe Allalu, as the eighth deputy mayor. This decision is the result of an incredible session of acrobatics, disappointments and heavy pressure, all wrapped in a considerable amount of cynical use of power and influence that has left a few casualties in its wake. The two major casualties are city council member Rahel Azaria and the first construction project for Arab residents since 1967.
The most obvious choice for the position of eighth deputy mayor was a member of Barkat’s coalition who was not in one of the two haredi parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism). Two names were at the top of the list – Rahel Azaria, head of Yerushalmim, and Elisha Peleg, Likud representative on the city council.
Azaria was Barkat’s first choice, there is no question about that. First because she is very loyal (perhaps even too loyal, say some of her opponents at Kikar Safra) and because Barkat genuinely supports and promotes women. In some aspects, Azaria is the perfect person for the job. She is educated, relatively young (an important factor in the mayor’s eyes), religious (modern Orthodox) and a feminist. She is also the product of true ingathering of the exiles – her father is from North Africa, and her mother is American. It couldn’t be better.
But Azaria is also very much involved in the religious-cultural struggle. She is against gender segregation on buses and in Mea She’arim, and against haredi hegemony in general. As such, she has become a red flag in the eyes of the haredim, who have, metaphorically speaking of course, put out a contract on her. Their message to Barkat was loud and clear: If Azaria is nominated, there will be no coalition.
For a while, the mayor tried to see how far this would really go. Ten days ago he even announced officially to Azaria (through his chief of staff) that she should get ready for the big moment. But during all that time, Barkat, aware of the strong opposition to his choice, tried to convince Allalu and the Meretz members to come back to his coalition. Peleg was never a real candidate in the mayor’s eyes.
Less than a month ago, Allalu still professed with all his famous passion that there was no way he would accept the position. “I would lose all credibility. I firmly intend to bring an end to Barkat’s reign. I will even support a haredi candidate – anyone but Barkat.”
Well, a few weeks have passed, and at the end of a passionate debate held at Meretz headquarters between Sunday night and Monday morning, Meretz came out with a document it sent to the mayor for approval, which contains its latest demands – nothing that Barkat wouldn’t be able to accept.
But Azaria is not the only one who lost the battle here. Two weeks ago, when Barkat was still trying to impose Azaria, the haredim on the city council decided to give him a sample of what they mean when they say “no.” On the local planning and construction committee’s agenda appeared a large construction project for the Sawahra neighborhood in east Jerusalem.
This was the first time such a huge project – 1,350 housing units – had been promoted by Barkat and the municipality since 1967 and was highly supported by Meretz, even in opposition.
The project was halted and removed from the agenda by the haredi members on the committee for an indefinite period. The message was received, loud and clear. Not that the haredim on the city council, especially the Ashkenazim, had any strong opposition to the project. They just wanted to send a message that if Azaria was in, there would be no construction for Arab residents. Negotiations with Meretz began immediately.
What Meretz gets from this move is not so clear. Allalu will become deputy mayor again, receive a nice salary and will do his best to promote important things for his constituency, such as keeping cultural institutions open on Shabbat. A quick check among representatives of the haredi benches gave this journalist the not surprising answer – “No way.”
Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Meir Margalit, the radical left-wing member of Meretz, will probably be given the portfolio of east Jerusalem. If this happens, his first order of business will be to resurrect the construction plan of the Sawahra neighborhood, which may not be a bad idea.
Azaria will have time to digest her first real lesson in politics; Barkat will come out not so badly – he will at least be able to say he tried; and Allalu will have about two years to explain to his constituency what he really means when he says that he wants to bring Barkat’s stint as mayor to an end.