Five questions with Jerusalem's leading mayoral candidates

With elections next Tuesday, tensions are rising at the headquarters of the two main Jerusalem mayoral candidates as each tries to win over every potential voter.

Moshe Lion and Nir Barkat 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Moshe Lion and Nir Barkat 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
1. A. What is the first thing you’ll do if elected mayor? I will immediately set about changing the order of priorities in the city. It can’t be that the municipality can find tens of millions of shekels for high-profile public relations events and complain there is no money for educating our children, creating jobs and affordable housing, and cleaning our streets. We need an immediate change to the city’s order of priorities, which puts the residents first.
There are major problems in the city that require immediate attention and have been ignored for five years, like raising the standard of education by equalizing the investment in Jerusalem’s children with that of a child in Tel Aviv. It is unacceptable that Jerusalem’s children are “second-class citizens”; they deserve better.
Ninety-thousand residents have left the city in the last five years under [current Mayor Nir] Barkat, more than under any of his predecessors. A large percentage of this exodus is our youth and the future of Jerusalem. We have to reverse this trend, or Jerusalem’s future will be in danger. We need to immediately build 20,000 housing units for young couples and create jobs to reverse this dangerous trend.
I will take the east Jerusalem portfolio out of the hands of Meretz and those who wish to divide our city, as it has been under Barkat. I will work to reverse the concessionist trends towards dividing the city, which took place under Barkat’s watch. First and foremost, Jerusalem will remain the eternal and indivisible capital city of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and I will give no power to those who work towards its division.
B. What will you do if you lose? I will take my place on the Jerusalem City Council and continue my work on behalf of the residents of Jerusalem, to reverse the negative trends in education, migration, sanitation, affordable housing and employment that are hurting this city.
2. If you are elected, what kind of coalition will you seek to establish? As I said above, I will immediately take the east Jerusalem portfolio away from Meretz, because now it is in the hands of the extreme Left and facts on the ground are being created which are detrimental to the demographic future of Jerusalem. Far fewer demolitions of illegal building in the Arab sector have taken place, and this enables a breakdown in law and order in our city.
Beyond this, I will try and build a wide coalition where all sectors are represented, and try to decrease the flames of conflict between the different groups that have been fanned under the current administration. We need to unify Jerusalem and allow no more divisions among the populations.
3. During the campaign, several issues that need immediate attention were raised. What will be your priorities and what is your game plan in how to deal with the following issues? • Raising the number of students who pass their matriculation exams The greatest disgrace of this current administration is that Jerusalem is placed 144th out of 154 municipalities, ranked according to the standard of education. The excuse that there are Arabs and haredim in Jerusalem would only be relevant if there weren’t Arab or haredi majority cities above Jerusalem in the list.
No more excuses, just excellence.
Jerusalem should be leading the list, not trailing it, and the reason is simple – a lack of investment. When I am mayor, I will ensure that the school day is longer and build 500 new classrooms and kindergartens. We will work to get all those children who are learning in airless bomb shelters and temporary and unsafe classrooms into proper buildings.
The cries of budget problems from the mayor are excuses.
It can’t be that there is NIS 1.5 million for the torch at the Maccabiah opening ceremony, tens of millions for a Formula One drive-by, but no money to pay teachers, improve classrooms and fight delinquency and dropouts.
• Cleaning the streets Again, Jerusalem invests a small fraction of that of other cities in sanitation and cleaning. I will increase the investment in street cleaning and add 300 sanitation workers, and clean every neighborhood and collect garbage at least three times a week – and if necessary, every day of the week.
• Affordable housing In a city of over 800,000 residents, it is a disgrace that there are only 2,000 housing units currently in construction. This ensures that the price of housing has grown 10 percent higher than in other parts of the country. There is space, there are plans and there is a desperate need for this housing, and I will ensure that the bureaucracy in the municipality will be dramatically reduced. I will build 10,000 units of affordable housing.
• Job opportunities We need jobs for every sector. I will create two new hitech and business parks, and will work with our partners in government to reverse the “brain drain” that means the main businesses do not see Jerusalem as a good investment.
I will encourage small business development, an area of great disappointment under the current administration.
• Public transportation issues I will ensure that every neighborhood will be connected to other neighborhoods. At the moment, there are frequent occasions where people have to take three modes of transportation, taking almost an hour to travel relatively short distances.
Additionally, I will give a 50% discount on all parking to Jerusalem residents, and make it free for those above the age of 67.
• Tensions between haredi and secular residents Jerusalem needs a unifier, someone who can unite the populations and find ways of lowering the tensions that have been manufactured during the last few years. As someone from the national-religious community, I hope to serve as a bridge between the communities and work towards compromises where everyone is satisfied – as I have achieved on the national stage.
I will maintain the status quo on religious-secular issues in the city.
4. What will you do to improve Arab residents’ conditions with respect to the following issues? • Construction permits First of all, we need to enforce the law on illegal building in the Arab sector, and then deal with legal construction permits.
Since Barkat gave the east Jerusalem municipal portfolio to Meir Margalit, a person who created an organization to prevent the demolition of illegal Arab building and who openly supports the division of the city and the international boycott, the number of illegal demolitions has gone down massively. This encourages more illegal building, which could have dramatic ramifications on demographic issues in Jerusalem and weakens the Jewish presence in the city.
• Crime and drugs We need greater enforcement. It cannot be that in outlying communities, Jerusalem residents are scared to walk the streets or visit parks. We need immediate investment and enforcement in law and order to reverse the control of criminal elements in our city.
• Security Jerusalem is under threat – not just politically, but also physically. We need to stop pandering to extreme elements and the Palestinian Authority in the Arab sector. Unlike Barkat, I will not meet with any groups with connections to terror. That will be my “red line” as mayor.
• Infrastructure and development If we want Jerusalem to remain united, we must invest in infrastructure and development in all sectors of the Jerusalem population. According to polls, Arab residents of Jerusalem want to stay under Israeli sovereignty, and we need to improve their conditions to prevent the growing “Palestinization” of east Jerusalem.
We have an absurd current situation where prominent members of Barkat’s coalition want to divide the city, yet ignore development in the Arab sector. We need to do the opposite, work unashamedly and strongly against the division of the city and anyone who tries to actively support it, while investing in infrastructure and development in the Arab sector, in order to strengthen our eternal city.
5. During the campaign, you and Nir Barkat both listed improvements in the city such as the Mesila Park, the First Station, etc., and claimed them as your own. How do you feel now about these claims? First, there is a letter written by Barkat to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praising all the important work I have done for the development of Jerusalem, and saying he had complete faith in me and my work. So Barkat himself answers the question about my significant contribution to the city. It is interesting to compare and contrast these words of strong praise and acknowledgement for all I did for Jerusalem with his well-funded campaign trying to pretend that I have no connection to the city.
The reason my work as chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority became so important is because of the lack of partnership between the mayor and the government. The people of Jerusalem pay the highest taxes in the city and receive the worst services. Under my chairmanship, the JDA expanded its budget from a few tens of millions of shekels to over NIS 300 million per year, which was used to build the First Station project, improve tourism, build parks and bike parks, and much more. In fact, some projects which the JDA funded for investment in our youth were inexplicably stopped by the municipal administration.
If the mayor had been able to get these funds from the government and initiate projects, he wouldn’t have needed me.
The city of Jerusalem doesn’t need a mayor who merely cuts ribbons or seeks attention in the media; the municipality has a spokesperson for these things. Jerusalem needs someone who can work with government and bring back to Jerusalem the investment from the taxes that the residents pay.
Maybe it was a mistake that I didn’t try to seek public credit for my work, but that is not my personality or the way I work. For me, the residents of Jerusalem come before the photo-ops and the battle over who receives credit.
1. A. What is the first thing you’ll do if elected mayor? I will keep up the momentum and create another 100,000 jobs, continue investing in education and in our young people, and promote a transportation program that will connect everyone in the city. Of course, we will also continue investing in neighborhoods.
B. What will you do if you lose? There’s no chance of that happening as long as Jerusalemites go out and vote. We need a large voter turnout. This is not about me; I’ll be fine, God willing. What’s at stake here is the future of Jerusalem. It would be such a shame for things to go back to how they used to be if I’m not reelected.
2. If you are elected, what kind of coalition will you seek to establish? We will aim for as broad a coalition as possible, similar to the one we currently have. As mayor, it is my duty to make sure that all Jerusalem residents will continue to be able to call this city home.
3. What is your game plan in how to deal with the following issues? • Raising the number of students who pass their matriculation exams I will continue to promote programs we began when I was responsible for education, and I will work to strengthen the positive trends we’ve been witnessing over the last five years.
Education is one of our top priorities.
The percentage of students who pass their matriculation exams has risen over the years from 64 percent to 68% and has now reached 72%; we are working hard to raise this number even more. We are working to increase the number of children who participate in youth groups, as well as the number of students who benefit from a longer school day or after-school programs in kindergartens and schools.
We are making a concerted effort to build additional classrooms in the haredi and Arab sectors, as well as upgrading existing school buildings in the city. It is our aim to strengthen the entire educational sector across the board.
As a result of policies I’ve instituted over the years, we’ve received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from students and their parents. The number of students studying in religious Zionist schools in Jerusalem has increased, as has the number of haredi and Arab students who choose to study core curriculum subjects and take the matriculation exams.
• Cleaning the streets There is not one area that we didn’t assess and improve, including the city’s appearance. We hired 100 new cleaners who work in neighborhoods all over the city and downtown area, and their impact can already be felt; we intend to increase the number of new employees each year.
Residents have already noticed this change, and the municipality receives fewer complaints. We’ve also renovated roads and increased the infrastructure budget eightfold to NIS 120 million, compared with only NIS 15m. during my previous term.
• Affordable housing The rise in real estate rates, including rentals, can be felt throughout the country and even more notably in Jerusalem. You will probably be happy to know, then, that the government has approved a proposal to double the arnona [property tax] ceiling for empty apartments, and I plan on creating additional incentives for owners to rent out their apartments.
A few months ago, we added an “earning capacity” criterion as a prerequisite to receiving discounted housing in Jerusalem, and we are pushing through with an initiative to build 2,000 housing units and to encourage private contractors to build new projects.
We have an arrangement with the Finance and Construction and Housing ministries whereby buyers of new units in Jerusalem will be eligible to receive grants of up to NIS 100,000, and students and young citizens will receive housing discounts.
Just a month ago, we laid the cornerstone for the Agron dormitory in the city center, which will add another 100 units that will be available for students to rent at discounted rates. the government to create incentives in developing areas, from which the number of businesses in Jerusalem will grow.
• Public transportation issues The light rail has significantly improved traffic on the city’s central axis. The Jerusalem municipal transport network, which will bring about further improvements, will connect every part of Jerusalem.
Over the next five years, we will upgrade the transportation system by connecting all of Jerusalem.
This advanced network will connect the fast train to the center of the country, and will include three light rail lines, public transportation routes, bike lanes, and a cable car to the Western Wall and the Mount of Olives.
We will continue developing and expanding light rail lines, including extending the current line to Neve Ya’acov and Hadassah [University Medical Center], Ein Kerem; we will build a line from Gilo to Ramot that passes through the city center, and another new one from the Hebrew University to Teddy Stadium and the Malha Mall that also passes through downtown Jerusalem.
We will complete roads that are half-built and pave new ones. The continuation of Begin South, for example, which will connect the tunnel road from Gush Etzion with Highway 443, will cost more than NIS 1 billion. This road will include a multi-level overpass at the Golomb intersection.
Route 21 will connect to Ramat Shlomo, and Route 20 will connect to Beit Hanina. Route 22 will reach the neighborhoods north of Har Hotzvim, and the Ora-Givat Massua road will provide an alternate route for reaching Hadassah Ein Kerem. Pisgat Ze’ev will be connected to Route 20 north.
Improvements on Shazar Boulevard will include a multi-level overpass and a park-and-ride parking area for people using public transportation.
We will continue to upgrade existing roads, extend bike lanes and invest in infrastructure in the eastern part of the city.
• Tensions between haredi and secular residents: A. The Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood has become a test case for tensions between haredi and secular Israelis. What are your plans regarding this and other neighborhoods where similar issues – such as the need for additional haredi kindergartens, secular cultural events, etc. – exist? I believe that a prosperous Jerusalem is a city that is home to all of its different populations. Each neighborhood should comprise public buildings that fulfill its residents’ needs. We made great efforts to reach this goal during my current term, and we also succeeded in reducing the amount of negative friction between sectors. For example, we canceled my predecessor’s decision to use the Warburg plot in central Kiryat Hayovel for the haredi community.
B. What is your position on whether Cinema City and other venues should be open on Shabbat? The municipality signed and the city council ratified an agreement with the developer stating that the state can decide which venues are allowed to operate businesses on Shabbat. If the developer wants to amend the agreement, he needs to submit a request to the Finance Ministry, at which point the city council will convene for a vote on the issue.
Numerous venues are currently open in Jerusalem on Shabbat, including 12 movie theaters (the Cinematheque, Lev Smadar, Rav Hen, the First Station and others located on private property).
4. What will you do to improve Arab residents’ conditions with respect to construction permits, criminality and drugs, security issues, and infrastructure and development? The Jerusalem Municipality invests significant funds in Arab neighborhoods, just as it does in the rest of the city. After decades of neglect, we’ve begun solving transportation problems, adding classrooms, creating street names and dealing with other problems with post offices, medical clinics, neighborhood and community elections and dialogue with neighborhood leaders.
[A survey published last year by a Washington institute] indicates that the residents of east Jerusalem are highly satisfied with the municipality. We are putting a significant amount of effort into raising exam scores in the Arab sector.
We will continue to increase budgets for the welfare of Arab residents. We will build 500 more classrooms in addition to the 500 that are currently being constructed. We will continue to match National Infrastructures Ministry funding, invest in infrastructure, and carry out a five-year transport infrastructure plan costing NIS 500m., as well as continuing to invest tens of millions of shekels in road safety.
We will also continue investing in education; we will create new programs to prevent dropouts and to eradicate violence; we will increase the number of students who pass their matriculation exams and promote vocational courses in high schools; we will complete the project giving streets names and houses numbers; and we will open additional well-baby clinics where needed.
5. During the campaign, you and Moshe Lion both listed improvements in the city such as the Mesila Park, the First Station, etc., and claimed them as your own. How do you feel now about these claims? This was due to a cynical exploitation of the preelection period.
Five years ago, I made public my vision of restoring Jerusalem as Israel’s cultural capital. The new complex we inaugurated this year at the old train station, which comprises restaurants, pubs, galleries and cultural activities, is truly wonderful news for Jerusalem residents. The complex is located between the new path that runs along the old train tracks, and the new walkway that will be built between the Khan Theater and the Jerusalem Theater.
When my predecessor [Uri] Lupolianski was mayor, he insisted that a street be paved where the new path now runs. While I was still in the opposition, I joined other activists in an effort to make a dream come true and turn these abandoned tracks into the most beautiful park and walkway in the country. And when I became mayor, I was able to fulfill this dream. The park and walkway pass through seven different neighborhoods – both Jewish and Arab – from Liberty Bell Park all the way to the Malha Mall. It is considered an extraordinary success story, and I’m extremely proud of having been involved in its creation.