Second-term grades: Nir Barkat's coalition

Six months in, Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition is still resolving religious tensions and sparring with the opposition – but more quietly.

Mayor Nir Barkat greets a haredi voter on election day last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat greets a haredi voter on election day last year
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Six months have passed since the elections for mayor and the city council, and that is enough time for us to take a closer look at what has changed – or not – with this new council.
The first thing that appears clearly is the atmosphere of seriousness and dedication to the work at hand that characterizes most of the city council members. A large percentage of the 30 city councillors has admitted that the last elections were a severe warning from the residents. Mayor Nir Barkat’s challenger, Moshe Lion, was not so far from winning the poll, as he decided to represent the large numbers of residents who felt for the past five years that they were not included in the city’s “success story,” as Barkat tried to present things under his watch.
“We have all learned our lesson,” says Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman – not so long ago Barkat’s fiercest rival – “and the mayor is adamant about bringing change for the better in the neighborhoods and residents’ lives, and not only focusing on large and high-profile projects.”
One of the most spectacular results of the elections was the growing number of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) representatives, although due to internal disagreements, this did not translate into more power for them at city council. As a result of this representation, a large part of the tensions between haredi and non-haredi residents in several neighborhoods is getting toned down.
One remarkable case was the demolition of an illegal synagogue in the Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood a few days before Passover. Contrary to what might be expected, the demolition went through without incident. Without a permit, the synagogue had invaded an adjacent plot that was intended for a school.
Several municipality warnings to the congregation to leave the place remained unanswered for a long while.
Less than a week before the holiday, the municipality sent tractors, by order of the mayor, to demolish the illegal section of the synagogue.
“Not so long ago, this step would have ended in serious protests, and probably riots from the haredi residents, if it could have happened at all,” says a highranking official at the construction permit department.
“Here, it caused some shock, but nothing happened, and the plot is now available for the planning of a new school in the neighborhood.”
Asked if the decision to demolish an illegal extension for a synagogue really served as an example, Turgeman says that less than two weeks after the demolition, residents in Gilo who wanted to obtain the city council’s approval for two new synagogues were told that no additional synagogues would be allowed in the area. Leading this decision was Turgeman himself, who is religious.
“I went to check out the situation,” he says, whereupon “I found out that in most of the 45 synagogues there, there are hardly enough people who pray, so why add more of that? Better to use the money for youth-movement branches, or any other community activity.”
Earlier this week, a group of residents in Kiryat Moshe who illegally use a local public structure as a synagogue turned to the municipality to find a way to prevent their place of worship from experiencing the Neveh Ya’acov synagogue’s fate.
A source at Safra Square says that this situation results directly from the paradox of the last elections: more representatives from the haredi community, with less power and influence.
Chaim Epstein, the sole representative of the Ashkenazi haredi Bnei Torah faction, won one seat, but obtained the rank of deputy mayor and therefore does not put pressure on the mayor.
As for the Shas list, party leader Arye Deri called Barkat on the morning following the elections (in which he openly supported Lion’s candidacy) and proposed a truce in return for an attentive ear to his constituency’s real needs. Because of this, the list’s five representatives are hardly noticed, according to the high-ranking official.
“It is very simple,” concludes Turgeman. “Once the atmosphere of hegemony and pressure is resolved, this administration is ready to meet, as much as possible, the real needs of the haredi communities in the city, so that there is no more need for all these demonstrations of power we saw in the past.”
When it comes to neighborhoods’ needs, things are still only beginning to move. While the budget for Independence Day festivities was raised from NIS 100,000 to NIS 150,000 in each neighborhood, maintenance of roads and sidewalks, public gardens and other routine needs are still waiting for more substantial improvement.
THE YERUSHALMIM party, which won two seats (compared to just one in the former council) is doingquite well – expanding the number of kindergartens included in the “11th month” program (for all the city’s public institutions). It also seems to be taking what may be the first step in a local revolution: the introduction of healthful food in public schools, as part of the battle for healthier youth and future citizens. The wholegrain couscous option, by the way, has won first place in a poll conducted in all the city’s elementary public schools on these new menus. Steamed zucchini came in last.
Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim, which advanced from one seat to four seats in this council, controls, among other things, the city’s budget for culture. Hanan Rubin, No. 2 on the list, who heads the culture committee, has managed to double said budget, including more substantial support for the cultural institutions in the city.
The Finance Committee almost started off with a dramatic situation, when its chairman, Deputy Mayor Shmuel Shkedi, became seriously ill right at the beginning of this council’s tenure. Shkedi has recovered, but his No. 2, Aryeh King – who is also CEO of the Israel Land Fund, a right-wing religious foundation that aims to bring as many Jewish residents as possible to the eastern part of the city, particularly the Old City – is in the news almost daily.
The visible animosity (on Facebook, at least) between King and Meretz has caused some members of Meretz to question the wisdom of deciding to remain outside of the coalition.
Also in the opposition is Lion, who is slowly but quietly learning more about the city’s issues and problems, and obviously preparing himself for the next elections.
Generally speaking, most of the city council members from the non-haredi benches believe that things are moving in the right direction. But is it really that good? Depends who answers the question.
As leader of the opposition, which counts three members (two from Meretz, and Moshe Lion), Pepe Alalu (Meretz) says that figures and statistics can be ambiguous and should be scrutinized carefully.
“Take, for example, the rates of immigration in the city,” he says. “Despite all the pledges of this mayor and his coalition, the rate is still negative, and we still ‘lose’ about 8,000 Jerusalemites each year.”
Alalu adds that he is aware that according to the findings of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a large number of those who leave are haredi residents, but he says that “Jerusalem is still a city that too many quit.”
As for the culture budget, Alalu is adamant: “During my term as holder of the culture portfolio in the former coalition, we pledged a total budget of NIS 25 million, and this year I hear that the municipality has approved only NIS 23m. – so where is the improvement?” But what makes him really angry is what he calls the “deceit” concerning Arab residents’ interests and needs.
“About 10 years ago, under mayor [Uri] Lupolianski, we petitioned the High Court for approval to build 1,000 classrooms [that were] lacking then,” he says.
“Barkat says he has built hundreds of classrooms. That is true, but he seems to forget that meanwhile there are more children, and we still lack about 900 classrooms, so where is the improvement?”