Plots and intrigue at Safra Square

As Moshe Lion joins Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition in an unexpected move, national political aspirations are in the air – with implications for all sectors, and for establishments open on Shabbat.

A grocery store that stays open on Shabbat, across from Mamilla Mall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A grocery store that stays open on Shabbat, across from Mamilla Mall
 It began with a few rumors, permeating the corridors of the municipality, but by the end of last week the rumors had become facts on the ground. Yesterday’s fiercest foes had signed a peace treaty.
Moshe Lion, the rival candidate for the mayorship in October 2013, crossed the lines and joined Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition, thereby ending 22 months of a very quiet sojourn on the opposition benches.
Lion is the most spectacular but not the only recent “acquisition” of Barkat in his growing coalition. Yael Antebi, a one-seat representative for the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood and its residents, and already a member of the coalition, is joining Barkat’s list.
Looming in the very near future is a similar move by Itai Gutler, the Labor representative on city hall’s Meretz-Labor list. After Gutler joins Barkat’s list, Meretz’s seats on the council will be reduced by half – leaving Laura Wharton totally alone in the opposition.
And to close this round of musical chairs, Yerushalmim’s two seats – those of Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir and Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz – are forecast to go in the same direction.
All together, this will bring 29 city council members under the mayor’s baton.
Until this week’s agreement with Lion, Barkat presided over a large coalition comprised of haredim, national-religious and pluralists, facing a thin opposition of three – two for Meretz-Labor, and Lion. This means that the mayor didn’t really need an added contingent, but Barkat’s vision seems to be much larger than the present affairs of the city, a vision that has more than a glimpse of national-scale politics.
One of the reasons behind these maneuvers lies in the fact that the mayor wants to promote his vision for the holy city without having to waste his precious time on the local political scene, where intrigue and plots require constant attention. Barkat has learned a thing or two about politics in his seven years at the head of the city council, but he has remained, deep down, a businessman, a hi-tech promoter – anything but a politician.
But there is more. Right from his first incumbency as mayor, Barkat pledged to serve for two terms, and has always made it clear that from Safra Square, for him, “the sky is the limit” – with sky, in this context, being the government. Whether he will run for a third term three years from now or cap his time as mayor with candidacy for the Knesset in the rows of the Likud (of which he is a member) is too early to say, but the possibility is in the air. Hence the move to invite Lion, a well-known protégé of MK Avigdor Liberman, to join his coalition has far more to it than obtaining increased support for his decisions as mayor.
Lion surprised some of the most experienced observers when, in total contrast to expectations, he didn’t go back to his hometown of Givatayim upon acknowledging his defeat in the 2013 municipal elections. In fact, the man whom Barkat liked to tease by calling him “the man from Givatayim” remained in Jerusalem, bought an apartment in the city and joined a local synagogue, where he leads the weekly Torah reading. And he took his seat on the city council.
Lion learned the reasons for his loss: the complexity and fragility of the promises he obtained from the haredim (to be taken with a pint of skepticism), and the basic requirement – to learn the city before asking its residents to give him its keys and steering wheel.
ANOTHER ANCIENT foe of Barkat is Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman – who, meanwhile, has become his closest associate in managing the city. Today, Turgeman holds the most important portfolio in the city council – Planning and Construction – where the city’s appearance is decided.
Turgeman was also the “best man” for the reconciliation between Barkat and Lion.
Asked in what way this step was necessary for Barkat, Turgeman doesn’t hesitate, and admits that “in the immediate future, Barkat doesn’t gain anything from it.
“However,” he adds, “we all know that Lion is very close to Liberman, who, despite having his own Yisrael Beytenu Party, still has an enormous influence on Likud institutions.
In the framework of his plans for the future, being in a good relationship with Lion means good relations with the man who can make a difference when the day comes and Barkat will decide he is ready for the national scale – and he will need the Likud members to support him.
“It is no secret that he aims at that in the future; we’re not talking about the immediate future, but it is somewhere in the air.”
Asked if, when this happens, he would consider entering the arena and running for mayor, Turgeman responds, “It’s too early to talk about that, but if Barkat moves ahead, I will run.”
Whether Barkat is already planning his next steps or just wishes to have good relations with all city council members, not everyone will be happy about this new friendship. One side among whom this could be evident is the haredim, who would rather remain the factor that tips the scale, and obtain more easily what they care about.
Hitorerut – the movement that brought new energy to the city some 10 years ago, striving to keep the younger generation of students and young couples in Jerusalem, slowing the migration out of the city – might also suffer from this new situation.
Ofer Berkowitz, who obtained an impressive result in the 2013 elections with four seats on the council, the same as Barkat’s list, is deputy mayor and holds the Youth and Culture portfolio. Most of his focus, during the campaign and since, has been related to keeping more places of entertainment open on Shabbat, so far with some success.THE TALK of the day since August 19 has been the groceries that remain open on Shabbat across the city. “This has become unbearable,” insisted councilman Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism). “Try to walk down Hillel Street on Shabbat and you can hardly make your way between the Berta bar [which also remains open on Shabbat] and the grocery opposite it, with all the chairs and merchandise exposed on the sidewalk.
That is not Jerusalem’s special Shabbat atmosphere we are used to, which even non-haredim want to have here.”
Pindrus complains that these openon- Shabbat marts are now almost everywhere; and unlike some years ago, they are not only in some discreet corners but on the road observant Jews (including tourists) take to the Western Wall. “It is a blatant breaking of the status quo in the city,” he contends.
“We cannot tolerate it.”
Recently, with or without a link to the opening of the Yes Planet cinema complex in the Abu Tor neighborhood, pressure from the haredim has increased.
Pindrus says that the recent protests in the streets of Jerusalem were aimed at sending a clear message to the mayor.
“We know, of course, that the Yes Planet is on private property and is a private initiative. Of course we don’t like it, but we’re not too bothered – clearly the place will shut down within a few months; there are not enough customers for 16 cinema halls on Shabbat in this city.
“The problem is with these groceries and the increasing number of places that are open on Shabbat; we cannot accept that. The mayor will have to understand that we mean business here.”
And so it was Pindrus who reminded the mayor last week that, following the High Court of Justice decision regarding groceries open on Shabbat in Tel Aviv, this applied to Jerusalem as well, and the municipality had to enforce the law and close them.
Barkat opted for “middle-of-the-road” enforcement, announcing such stores will be closed only in a certain area, while in other places – far from the city center and the Old City – they will not be ordered to close.
“That’s a bad joke,” charges Pindrus.
“Either you act according to the law, or not. Either it is a status-quo matter, or it is not. You can’t have it both ways.”
Turgeman believes this is all a temporary storm, and that everything will return to normal within a few weeks.
“The capital has changed over the last few years; nobody is going to pull it back to the situation that prevailed here 10 years ago,” he concludes.
And what about the grocery owners who are concerned they will lose their income? “My advice would be not to get carried away into violent protest,” was his reply.
Yet that is not the way Berkowitz sees it.
“We have made a tremendous change in Jerusalem. In fact, that was the main purpose of Hitorerut, to wake up to the needs of this city and its residents, to have a normal life here,” he maintains.
“Shabbat is important for all of us – but in various ways. There is room enough here for people to spend it differently, with mutual respect.
“We will not allow any retreat from the tremendous changes we have introduced here. Hitorerut will represent the store owners at the demonstration planned for this Thursday [August 27] at Safra Square, to make it clear.”
Asked if this position could be perceived as a challenge to Barkat, Berkowitz responds that while being a reliable partner to the mayor, he could not imagine that his movement would let down those numerous residents who trusted him when he promised to turn the city into an open one.