Mr. Mayor

Nearly a year into his second term, Mayor Nir Barkat is confident he can deal with violence in Jerusalem, and satisfied he is bolstering the capital’s economy and promoting coexistence.

Nir Barkat
Nearly a year into his second term, Mayor Nir Barkat is confident he can deal with violence in Jerusalem, and satisfied he is bolstering the capital’s economy and promoting coexistence among all sectors
Next month, on October 22, Nir Barkat will mark the first year of his second term as mayor. It has been more than a decade since he first started participating in the political game without playing by the rules. Barkat has never been an official candidate of any political party, despite his closeness to Kadima and the Likud. Today, he sounds much more confident and has almost completely changed the municipality apparatus to suit his approach.
In short, Barkat still doesn’t believe in the rules of the political game; instead, he uses a businesslike approach that is more common in the world of hi-tech, the world from which he comes.
Signs of this are everywhere. Work at city hall is done on the basis of clear working plans with production forecasts, checked and rechecked at periodic meetings during which, confirm sources at Safra Square, participants “talk business” and don’t waste too much time on palavering. Barkat’s management style has shaken quite a few of the clerks, as well as some of the high-ranking officials. He has even banished the pastries that were served at the meetings and replaced them with fresh vegetables.
The structure of the municipality has changed completely. High-ranking officials understand that the new format requires accountability (one of Barkat’s favorite terms) from them, as well as results.
Not that everything works perfectly. Too often, the schedules and the sophisticated plans are not as clear to the residents as they are to those in the municipal offices.
And many of the employees lack the capacity to think in terms of a hi-tech enterprise. But Barkat won’t let these issues prevent him from seeing the big picture – a Jerusalem in which investments, development, tourism and education heavily oriented toward technology will bring profit and prosperity to all residents.
Particularly in regard to Arab residents, Barkat is convinced that his policy to increase the budgets and the development of their neighborhoods significantly will lead to appeasement and a decrease in political and security turbulence.
On the occasion of Rosh Hashana and the first year of his second term, the mayor agreed to answer some questions from In Jerusalem. He initially chose the City of David as the site for the interview, but the talk ultimately took place in his office for technical reasons.
Why did you choose the City of David?
When you visit the excavations at the City of David, you understand that it’s all true, the whole story is coherent and true. You look at the antiquities, the rest of the structures, and you realize that it was all there. It connects me strongly to our history, to our past. It strengthens me very much. I know that every person we take to visit the place comes back with a strong perspective, an understanding of our history in Jerusalem.
Of course, the Kotel is dramatically significant in its religious aspect, too, but in order to understand this city, how it was managed, in this aspect the City of David is a strategic declaration. The archeology there clearly depicts how it was thousands of years ago.
So, in your view, this is the location that connects us to the chain of generations and our past? But not all the residents of this city appreciate your position. What would you tell them?
I would tell them that they should look straight at the reality and at the facts at hand and to understand who was here 3,000 years ago. In those days, there was a magnificent city that endured for 1,000 years, with two Jewish Temples. There were no Christians and no Muslims yet. The Christians arrived 1,000 years later, and the Muslims came 600 years after that. They all dwelt here. They were all treated with dignity, as it is now and as it should be.
The bottom line is this: Whether you like it or not, these are the facts. It’s one thing to read books and stories about the past, but it’s a totally different thing to walk in there and to see the sites with your own eyes and to understand who was here 3,000 years ago.
How do you proceed so that this strong connection that you feel as a Jew toward this city doesn’t sound like a threat to the Arab residents? How do you convince them that they have a place here and that they have rights?
Let’s remember that, first of all, and to my great joy, for the last 2,000 years, none of the many conquerors in whose hands this city was for so many years was too concerned about its status. Today, unlike it was for so long, there is full freedom of religion for everyone. The Muslims manage their own sites, the Christians manage their sites, the Jews manage their own religious sites.
There is freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of employment. We are reducing the gaps between the residents. We are investing in the non- Jewish residents in a very serious way; their quality of life is improving all the time.
I can tell you that today, the quality of life of the Arab residents of Jerusalem is much better than it is in all the Arab countries in the region, let alone the Emirates [in the Persian Gulf] – their employment security, the medical services they get – compared to what can be found today in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or in Gaza in the Palestinian territories. There are reasons why they prefer to remain in Jerusalem and not to live anywhere else. So if we want to look at the facts at hand, we see that the satisfaction of the Arab residents is increasing, as we are investing a lot of effort to reduce the gaps between them and the rest of the city’s residents.
I think it is a part of what our Jewish values require us to observe, to act toward the stranger who lives among us fairly and with dignity, and I believe this is what we are doing. So we respect the precepts of the Torah and act with common sense and respect the law.
After the discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped Jewish teenagers [in June] and the murder of the young Arab resident of Shuafat [in July], there were riots from both sides in the city. But the riots on the Arab side do not seem to be ending, and the attacks on the light rail stations are continuing. How do you feel about that?
There is no excuse for violence. I believe, and so do the police, that besides [maintaining] the right to protest against violence, we answer with firmness. The Jerusalem Police have received my full backing to proceed that way. They have arrested 700 Arab residents. They have all been brought to justice or will be shortly. We will not yield to a single one of those who took the law into their own hands. The word is zero tolerance toward violence, and I have complete trust in the Jerusalem Police on that issue. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to praise the police for the hard work they have done and their high motivation.
Nevertheless, we are not satisfied with the present situation. That is why the police are planning a series of actions, some already done or shortly to be launched, to restore the calm in all the neighborhoods. We all work together – the municipality, the police, the legal system.
We aim to coordinate the activities, to change the way we deal with these events to obtain better results.
What else has been done?
I want to say one thing about my policy here. I have given instructions to all my deputies on the city council and the [rest of the] councillors to keep a low profile regarding the situation. I have also asked the light rail management to keep a low profile in the media. Every time a teenager who throws a stone appears in the media, [someone] will do it again – and again and again.
By publicizing the riots, we allow them to escalate. In fact, we create the atmosphere that the terrorists want to create. Our answer should be a professional approach, to learn from past events and to reduce the media buzz as much as possible. There is no other way.
And now to some good news – namely the increase in the number of young and productive families remaining in or moving to Jerusalem, as the figures from the education system indicate. It all sounds promising, but this still isn’t big money [for the economy], right?
I’m glad you asked about that. As for your question, you’re wrong. I will give you the latest figures from the Jerusalem Development Authority. While in 2012 only 14 start-ups requested financial incentive, in 2013 there were already 40. And by August of this year, we already had more than 80 start-ups. The venture capital in the city two years ago was 70 companies that recruited $70 million. In 2013, it reached $100m. And by August of this year, we were already at $120m. The biggest emission company ever in Israel is a local company – the famous Mobileye, which employs 500 people. It has recruited $1 billion. The industrial sphere is in shock over that achievement.
We are witnessing a renaissance in the technological sphere to a degree that nobody ever dreamed of achieving here. It has a lot of effects: hundreds of employees, higher salaries, higher investments in Jerusalem-based companies. Investors and entrepreneurs prefer to stay in Jerusalem because they can have a better quality of life, more culture, better education. We see the figures.
As of 2014, there is a critical mass of people who feel good about being here. There is new hope, and we see the results.
What can you say about the new trends in the education department?
Seven hundred new pupils were added to the secular and religious schools this year. The number of new kindergartens we had to open this year in the Zionist stream is equal to the number in the haredi sector and the Arab sector. This hasn’t happened here for over 30 years! These are dramatic changes, and I thank God for this. One doesn’t come at the expense of the other – we have plenty of space for all. What we see is that the Zionist sector is coming back to its former status in all aspects – growth, impact, development, dignity. I am very satisfied.
Does the aliya of French Jews also make you happy?
Very much. These are Zionists, valuable people, good Jews who have a high added value. It’s a pleasure to see them here. They are working people, businesspeople, in education as well, with high motivation. It’s a real pleasure to work with them. We have mobilized the French Jews already living here to help in the various departments at city hall to help with the newcomers.
For example, in the arnona [municipal tax] department, one of the counters is manned by French-speaking volunteers.
Let’s turn to culture. There is no question that there has been a huge change in this area. However, there is concern that the achievements come at the expense of the cultural institutions, since many of the events are free and presented outdoors. Perhaps it is time to strike a balance between free and paid events.
To my great joy, we do all of these. Look at the cultural institutions. Five years ago, most of them were on the verge of shutting down, barely surviving. Today, their budgets are three and four times more than in the past. And that’s besides the volume of events that the municipality initiates, such as Hamshushalayim and others that are organized in partnership with the cultural institutions.
On top of that, I am working on a plan to find a home for every cultural institution operating in Jerusalem.
We started with the Beit Mazia Theater, a home for three companies, and we will continue with others so that by the end of this term all the cultural groups and companies will have a permanent home in this city.
Regarding the large free outdoor events, I would say there is room for each kind. Events like the Light Festival or the Formula One race create a buzz in the city. There is a need for both. There is a saying that when it rains, it rains on everybody. That is the situation here, too.
Your coalition includes secular and haredi parties. How does it work together?
They all work together. The focus of attention is the city of Jerusalem and its residents. Conflicts occur in the mixed neighborhoods, not where the separation is clear. In a haredi neighborhood, the interests of haredi residents are taken care of. The same goes for secular and Arab neighborhoods. So problems occur when the two populations share the same neighborhood. There we need more energy, more leadership to solve problems.
My credo is that we are all residents of this city. My belief is that they are all my partners, all the residents are partners. They are all my children. Our aim is to promote coexistence and the needs of all the sectors, side by side.
The secular won’t live in a haredi neighborhood, but the opposite does happen. When haredi residents ask their neighborhood council and community center for activities that suit their way of life, it causes tension.
I see that as a challenge. Any other way of dealing with these issues would be far worse. There is a status quo in this city. Leisure spots like restaurants can open on Shabbat, but commercial areas are closed. We act according to that; we don’t change it. It’s not easy for anyone on either side, but we all understand that to live in this city, we have to work by [that policy]. Private initiatives and businesses operate on Shabbat, official venues don’t. There will be no change and no moving from this status quo in Jerusalem.
What is your New Year blessing for the residents of Jerusalem?
I wish everyone a year of peace and calm, a year of growth in culture, in education, in Torah, that we see the ongoing success of Jerusalem for all its residents, and especially that we all have tolerance toward each other. We will all benefit from that.