Looking toward the Likud

As Mayor Nir Barkat sets his sights on the national political arena, Jerusalem is waiting and wondering: Is he still focused on the city’s needs? And who might replace him?

Mayor Nir Barkat at the Jerusalem Marathon press conference this past March (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat at the Jerusalem Marathon press conference this past March
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 Last week at a meeting of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, attendees had the opportunity to witness an interesting event of local reconciliation: Committee head MK David Amsalem (Likud) and Mayor Nir Barkat, a candidate on the Likud’s next list for the Knesset – until recently tough foes – fell into each other’s arms and sealed a new era of friendship.
Considering that until very recently the two flung mostly (non-diplomatic) accusations at each other, the warm hugs the two exchanged at the end of the special meeting of the panel on the mayor’s plan on the next steps for the city’s light rail and mass transportation was big news.
In case some think that political interests might be the major motivation behind this new fraternity, that may not be too far from the truth. But beyond the mutual interests (Barkat’s in this case being more obvious than Amsalem’s), what lies at the bottom of this is a significant step in Barkat’s long run toward his next goal: the Knesset and, more specifically, a ministerial title.
Amsalem, once a high-ranking municipality official, is considered one of the Likud’s most powerful members, someone you cannot override on your way to the Likud-led Knesset. Barkat – who during his first mayoral campaign in 2008 was a member of Kadima but today strives to become an active and influential member of the Likud – knows he is still regarded as an outsider in the party.
Two people can help him improve this situation. One is Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, who has high standing in the party’s local branch, although he is not representing it on the city council. The other, in fact the most influential at the moment, is Amsalem. At this point Barkat, who has openly launched his plan to enter national politics, needs all the support he can get within the benches of the Likud.
Is Barkat really planning to leave Safra Square, and is he ready to move on to the next stage of his public career – becoming an MK or even a minister? Does he really consider himself – as quite a few observers around him say – the perfect candidate for the post-Benjamin Netanyahu era? The truth is, nobody really knows.
RIGHT FROM his first days as Jerusalem’s mayor, in October 2013, Barkat and his closest assistants made it clear that “after two or three terms as mayor, there will be something else” – and that something else was presented as “the sky’s the limit.” Yet again, no one knows – perhaps not even Barkat himself – the real chances that by the end of 2018 he will move from Safra Square to the Knesset.
But even before that, another question must be raised: What happens if there is a general election before the end of his tenure at city hall in October 2018? Will Barkat skip it and wait – again – until the next election? Or will he leave the mayor’s office, as Ehud Olmert did 13 years ago, and put it in the hands of one of his deputies? In a conversation with In Jerusalem a few months ago, Turgeman said Barkat had personally promised him that he would never leave in the middle of his tenure, whatever the conditions. The question as to whether that promise is still relevant today or already divorced from the current realities still needs to be clarified.
Recently, after repeated requests from Barkat, city council member Laura Wharton (Meretz), the sole representative of the opposition, obtained some interesting information: Barkat has admitted that since he launched his campaign to counting down to the Likud national list, he is devoting 15 percent of his public time to the campaign – meaning that he is giving at least 15% less of his time to the city’s affairs.
“There is no law forbidding him to do so,” comments Pepe Alalu, former head of the city council’s Meretz list and still one of the mayor’s fiercest opponents, “but it says clearly that his head is somewhere else.”
He adds, “Personally I am not against this, as I think that most of the hopes Jerusalemites had regarding his leadership have evaporated one by one, in regard to his capacity to represent secular residents’ interests or to calm the tensions between right-wingers and Arabs in the Arab neighborhoods.
So I am not so sorry to learn that he is aiming at something else – anyone after him will do better.”
Alalu is not a candidate to replace Barkat, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t active in doing something about the eventual next candidate. Despite being officially linked to the Meretz campaign to “stop giving away the city to the haredim,” Alalu says he would welcome a haredi mayor, even specifying the name of Deputy Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism), adding that he could be a good mayor – “probably better than people think.”
PINDRUS, UPON hearing this from IJ, begins with a big laugh but quickly says, “Clearly the next candidate, and probably the next mayor, will be Moshe Lion. And since I was behind the idea of bringing him to Jerusalem three years ago, there is no way I will run against him.”
Pindrus is one of those haredim who hold clear right-wing positions, contrary to most of the ultra-Orthodox city council members. He lives in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter and has behind him successful experience as mayor of Elad. Asked how the haredi sector, and more precisely haredi leadership, will get ready for the post-Barkat days, Pindrus admits that while “there is still the need for approval from prominent rabbis, the situation that prevailed until a few years ago, which required the full and clear support – and the blessings – of the haredi rabbinical leadership for any candidate to run has dramatically changed.
“The situation today is different. Such a leadership requesting the obedience of the entire sector no longer exists. However, if Lion decides not to run, I will consider myself as a worthy candidate. But, of course, I will first seek support from my spiritual leader.”
ACCORDING TO most observers at Safra Square, Moshe Lion is indeed the leading contender to step into the mayor’s office.
Barkat’s rival in the 2013 election surprised quite a few when, contrary to what was widely anticipated, he remained in Jerusalem, became a member of the city council and recently reached an agreement with Barkat and entered his coalition.
Safra Square sources say the mayor is paving the way for Lion to replace him in due course, but both Barkat (through his closest assistants) and Lion himself deny this. Lion emphasizes to IJ that as long as Barkat is mayor, he is not a candidate and isn’t planning anything.
However, when asked about his plans for the day after Barkat’s era, Lion says he will throw his hat into the ring, adding that his chances to win this time would be much more promising.
Asked what special assets he would bring if he won the election, Lion replies that although it may sound a bit banal, he has the capacity to be accepted by all sectors of the city’s population.
“The haredim know me and trust me, and I know them and their needs. The religious and the Zionists trust me – I am a Likud member – and even the rest of Jerusalem’s population is learning, through my work with local councils and community centers, that I am reliable.
“And, above all, that I am a man of dialogue,” he asserts.
TURGEMAN – also once a fierce opponent of Barkat’s and today perhaps his closest ally at Safra Square – maintains, “As long as Barkat is here, I am not making any move towards candidacy,” but adds that if the day comes when Barkat leaves the city’s helm, then “I will certainly run. I see myself as a worthy candidate with a lot of support from the residents across all political sides.”
To the question of whether he believes Barkat is paving the way to the mayor’s office for Lion, Turgeman hesitates a bit but replies that to his knowledge, Barkat has made a strategic decision not to back – either openly or behind the scenes – any eventual candidate. “I think that he is very cautious not to be seen as someone who points out his heir. He doesn’t want to be in that position, and I trust that he is sincere about that,” concludes Turgeman.
Then there is Ofer Berkowitz of Hitorerut (the movement for “pluralistic Zionism”), who doesn’t conceal his dream of being mayor one day. Berkowitz is cautious not to sound too sure about his chances of reaching that goal and emphasizes the need to consolidate Jerusalem’s secular sector.
“Of course I want to reach that moment, to be a candidate with a good chance of winning the position,” he admits in a phone conversation, while waiting for a meeting with the Culture and Sport Ministry CEO, himself once a high-ranking official at city hall (Berkowitz holds the city’s Culture portfolio). “But my major interest for now is to increase as much as possible the number of Hitorerut city council representatives.”
Some of his close assistants admit that while his chances – at least for the 2018 election – are not too promising, Berkowitz will not renounce the political implication of his presence in the next mayoral campaign arena.
“Think of that,” he continues. “If we get seven or eight Hitorerut members on the city council, no one will be able to ignore the needs and rights of those we represent anymore, and that is what matters most in my eyes at this stage.”
Arieh King of United Jerusalem, a list that split from Bayit Yehudi (though very close to its representative Dov Kalmanovich), says his focus is to ensure that Jerusalem will at least get a right-wing mayor.
“I am aware of all those who are candidates for the next election, whether they are real candidates or candidates in their own eyes only,” says King. “But for us [King and Kalmanovich], what matters most is that aspect. Pindrus could be a good candidate, since he is not only religious but also right-wing and cares about the issues that are significant in our eyes. But we are not tied for the moment to anyone specific, only to the city’s needs and what’s best for it.”
With regard to Lion’s eventual candidacy, King says his chances are very good, “and, in any case, it is clear that the next mayor will be religious.”
This is also the understanding of Pindrus, who insists that while the best way to reach that aim is still not clear within the haredi sector – whether to again position a haredi candidate or seek the best candidate outside the sector who would understand their needs – “it is more than certain that the next mayor will be a religious person.”
Pindrus is convinced that Lion is the best candidate, pointing out that he is religious (crocheted kippa), Mizrahi (so he can attract the votes of the city’s Sephardim) and above all, has the backing of powerful Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
“This is exactly the problem,” maintains Alalu. “Since the days of [mayor] Teddy Kollek, no political party has sent its own candidate to Jerusalem – as if the entire political sector has given up on the city. This leaves us with second-best candidates, who may have ties to some political party but are not the official representatives.”
Two years and four months until the election, and counting…