One-on-one with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat

'In Jerusalem' in conversation with Jerusalem's mayor.

Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
By tradition, ahead of Rosh Hashana, Mayor Nir Barkat answers questions from In Jerusalem about the challenges faced by the city. This year’s one-on-one finds us about a year away from the next election.
Our first question was about the “Barkat Plan,” which received a rather stormy welcome when presented to the council. Barkat rises from his comfortable armchair – barefoot – and bends over two maps of the city on which the major changes concerning the redistribution of education venues are marked in red.
Three issues are at the center of attention regarding Barkat and his moves right now: the plan, the ongoing fight between him and the Treasury – and above all, what his plans for the future are. Is he going to run for a third term or will he move on next year to the national political level, joining a next government (as long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading it).
These were Barkat’s comments on these issues, on the last week of August in his Safra Square office.
Why, in your opinion, is the educational plan meeting so much anger and opposition, both in the opposition and in parts of your coalition?
Right now, we are lacking more than 3,800 classrooms in the city of Jerusalem. The natural growth requires about 185 new classrooms per year over and above the existing classes. The national government approves between 60 to 80 classrooms, perhaps (but rarely) 100. Which means we begin each year with a deficit that causes a political culture of general war between the parties.
The reality is that every time a new school is built, one sector obtains it and two others remain without. The voters in each sector evaluate their representatives according to their achievements in this matter. As a result, and that’s the worst thing, whatever a representative cannot provide, means that another sector obtained it to that group’s detriment. Obtaining a school or even a few more classrooms has become over the years a reason to go to war between the sectors – like jungle warfare to beat the other side.
How did things work before you became mayor?
Let me remind you that for years, the major question prior to each new school year was how many and which schools to hand over to the haredi stream from the public stream. The trend was one way, because the public (religious and secular) population was dropping and the haredi and the Arab streams were growing. The government and the municipality were challenged to develop adequate answers to match these needs. In 2014, I created an administration whose task was to offer adequate solutions to cope with the need – about 1,000 new classrooms per year. I asked them how we could do that, reach that goal. How could we end the current makeshift solutions where we rent apartments to use as classrooms at a cost of millions of shekels a year.
I allocated NIS 1 billion and the same sum is planned for next year. We are building wherever the needs are greatest.
By doing that, aren’t you releasing the government from its duty and responsibility?
My first concern is to take responsibility myself. What we are doing now is working on the basis of a clear mapping of the needs for classrooms for each of the three streams, and where in each neighborhood. This is a five-year plan that I am promoting, without waiting anymore for the budgets of the various ministries. Don’t worry, I will get every shekel I invest back – but I am not waiting for anybody anymore. The children of Jerusalem come first.
Isn’t it a heavy burden to take all these loans out for the city?
Actually, it will cost us less than the money we spend now on renting apartments and facilities, including the vast sums of money we spend on renovating venues that are not even the city’s properties. This way we are building not only for now but also for the future.
So why is this plan attracting so much criticism, even from members of your own coalition? Some critics say that you have reached an agreement with only a part of the haredi sector, that you have neglected the rest...
The Lithuanian stream is leading the haredi education segment – they account for about 80% of the pupils in all grades in the haredi system. They are also the large majority of haredim who have moved into non-haredi neighborhoods, together with Sephardi haredim – and that is the main reason why I have launched this whole plan, in total agreement with their representatives.
The major question right from the beginning was where do we build classrooms for haredim who live in non-haredi neighborhoods? We had to decide exactly where to build for each one of the streams. I know that there are some who believe that haredim just want to take over the whole city...
I think there are many in the pluralist sector who think and feel like that.
True. And there are also many haredim who think that way. I asked their leaders, what do you really want? The answer was loud and clear: “We want to live together in peace [with the non-haredim in the neighborhood].”
My answer was: in secular psychology, if you open a haredi school in the middle of a secular neighborhood – that neighborhood is doomed. So if you really want to help me to promote coexistence, you have to agree that there will be no haredi school in a secular neighborhood. What I suggest in that case is to give your sector schools that are located on the seam of these neighborhoods. For example, in Kiryat Hayovel a haredi school for haredi residents in that neighborhood will be on the edge of nearby Bayit Vagan.
But you do allow haredi preschools in these secular neighborhoods?
Yes. Schoolchildren can walk a bit, but toddlers cannot be sent too far away. Through this arrangement, we end the pirate preschools operating from private apartments in Kiryat Hayovel. Isn’t that coexistence?
So how do you explain the anger at – and the rejection of – this plan by the secular public through their representatives at city council, if, as you, say, it is so good for all parties?
I worked on this plan for months. We were a small team, from the haredi sector, from the municipality, and we reached that achievement. When I had it ready, I went to Hitorerut members, and invited them to join the process. I wanted them to join me on the principles – preschools inside the neighborhoods, schools on the seams of the neighborhoods, closer to haredi neighborhoods. And in return, the Warburg compound approved and in Kiryat Hayovel two new public schools – it’s a give-and-take situation, in which there is a little giving and a lot of taking, and yes, it requires some guts. I don’t even need the approval of the council. It’s in the framework of a mayor’s vision, so my hands are free, yet I wanted them with me on this. Unfortunately, they decided otherwise.
But how did you fail to forward all this information to the greater public, as most of the residents are convinced that you are surrendering to all haredi demands?
Everything is clearly written and explained on my Facebook page. Whoever wants to know the truth can find it there. There are some who prefer to stick to extremist slogans – it’s politics. It’s easier to shout that the haredim are taking over all the city and so on, but I prefer to focus on finding solutions and move on.
We cannot end this interview without the question on your plans for the future. Where will you be next November? Will you run for a third term?
I will make a decision by the end of this year.
But what possibilities are you considering?
There are three options – the first would be to continue for one more term; I have a lot to do yet here. The second option is a senior position in the government. The third option would a combination of the two – being the mayor of Jerusalem and also the minister for Jerusalem affairs.
There is speculation that you might run for a third term, get elected, and leave within a year or so to join the government, making way for Moshe Lion, who considers himself as the best candidate to replace you. What do you say?
So people say. Could be or not. I have no obligation to anybody.