The Jerusalem Affairs Ministry affair

MK Ze’ev Elkin says he is ready to set aside the conflict his appointment as Jerusalem affairs minister has created, and get down to the business of working for the city.

MK Ze’ev Elkin
While Safra Square is still fuming over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to appoint a Jerusalem affairs minister despite his pledge to Mayor Nir Barkat that he wouldn’t, Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who assumed his position on Monday, seems removed from the commotion his appointment has caused.
Ze’ev Elkin was born in Ukraine in 1971. A member of the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement, he became secretary of the Soviet Union branch in 1990, just before making aliya. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in history at the Hebrew University, from which he graduated in 1994, and was later involved in Jewish education in the former Soviet Union.
Elkin was elected to the 17th Knesset in 2006 as a member of Kadima, and chaired the subcommittee on the absorption of immigrant children and youth. In November 2008 he decided to leave Kadima, as he believed it had moved too far to the Left, and joined Likud for the 2009 elections. He was reelected in 2013, and served as deputy foreign minister from March 2013 to June 2014, then became chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. After the 2015 election, he was appointed immigrant absorption and Jerusalem affairs minister.
Elkin, who is married and has three children, explains why there was nothing wrong with his appointment, and why Barkat should quickly put aside his resentment and get to work for Jerusalem’s best interests.
He arrives at his office at the Absorption Ministry on Kaplan Street – delayed by traffic but unruffled – from his home in Kfar Eldad, Gush Etzion, and tells In Jerusalem about how he became Jerusalem affairs minister, and his plans for the city.
Do you understand why Mayor Nir Barkat is so upset about this situation?
I understand him, but I think he is misguided.
First, because my appointment is a positive thing for the city and its residents. He has been told that by several people – from the government, from the Knesset; quite a few people who are unbiased and genuinely think it’s a good step.
The fact is that Barkat wanted to be the Jerusalem affairs minister, and incidentally I think he was right. I believe it is the right thing to do, if we want to declare our attachment to the city and the capital – it is right that in all future governments the Jerusalem affairs minister should also be the mayor.
And I know there was a serious attempt to convince MKs to support this idea [to bypass the current law forbidding a mayor to be a minister].
We at the Likud really tried but… it just didn’t work, we failed to solicit a majority of votes necessary for that move. I was absolutely for it.
So what has happened since?
What happened is that Barkat came up with the suggestion that the Jerusalem Affairs portfolio remain in the Prime Minister’s Office, and that he, as mayor, would deal directly with the prime minister or his representative to coordinate these issues. Barkat also preferred that solution because he complained a lot about the lack of compatibility between him and former Jerusalem affairs minister Naftali Bennett.
But the media received a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office on Jerusalem Day announcing that the portfolio would remain within the PMO. So what happened?
That is precisely the point. During the coalition negotiations it was clear that the portfolio was still in Bennett’s hands, and he initially refused to relinquish it. He eventually changed his mind when he had to come to terms with reality, just before the government was formed. He received the Justice Ministry [for his party], and he had to let go.
And even then, when the prime minister announced his decision at the [government meeting at the Israel] Museum, that he had in mind that one of the Likud MKs – which means someone from his own party, close to him and reliable – would be in charge of Jerusalem Affairs, nobody expected the prime minister would deal with these issues himself on a regular basis.
What I want to stress here is that all through the negotiations the portfolio was meant to be in someone’s hands.
So what you are telling us is this is all the result of the complicated maneuvering for building the coalition?
When, at the very last moment, Gilad Erdan joined the government, the prime minister had to redistribute the portfolios. I was asked to cede the Strategic Affairs Ministry to him, and received the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry in exchange.
I agreed because I find the matter so interesting and important. If I had been asked right from the beginning if I wanted the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, I might have agreed straightaway.
Why is it so important to you? What can you contribute to Jerusalem?
I have spent almost my entire life since I made aliya in Jerusalem or near it. Since I have been in the Knesset, from my first day, I joined the lobby for Jerusalem and was its president for many years. I worked hand-in-hand with Nir [Barkat], who significantly assisted me on several matters, including supporting my quests for increased funding and helping me increase the number of deputy mayors [from six to eight] in order to facilitate my plan to have a large coalition.
I have always been involved, and have always cared about the city.
And what do you think will happen now?
You know, before the last municipal election [in October 2013] it was even suggested that I should run for mayor. Several people [suggested it], including influential personalities in the city. I said no immediately, that I would never run for mayor as long as Nir is a candidate. I had a good chance [of winning], and I told him [Barkat] so.
Are you expecting things to settle down soon? What do you expect will occur in the coming days?
A large majority [in the Knesset] approved my appointment, which means that even beyond coalition issues, a large majority of MKs believe I am the right person for the job. Of course, we [Barkat and I] will have to work together – I have received full responsibility for most of the Jewish donations given for the city’s development and growth.
This is what needs to be done now to work together with Nir, and I am ready to put aside all the insults I had to hear in recent days.
Have you heard from Barkat?
Not yet, and in any case, I was not officially appointed until yesterday [Monday] evening; but I believe we will soon work together.
What does the ministry do?
The Jerusalem Affairs Ministry was established in 1988. MK Avner Shaki from the National-Religious Party held the portfolio until June 1990 in the 12th Knesset; Shaki was followed in the next government by Yitzhak Shamir (1990-2), then Yitzhak Rabin held the portfolio while he was serving as prime minister from July to December 1992.
After that, the ministry was abolished, and Jerusalem Affairs was incorporated into the tasks of the Diaspora affairs minister – including Meimad’s Michael Melchior (1999- 2001); Shas’s Eli Suissa (2002-3); Natan Sharansky, who was not an MK at that time (2003-6), with a short interlude by Labor’s Haim Ramon (January-December 2005); Kadima’s Ya’acov Edri (May 2006-July 2007); Isaac Herzog (2007-9) and Yuli Edelstein (2009-13). Between June and November 2005, the ministry even had a vice minister in Melchior.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the portfolio between March and April 2013, then appointed Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) to the position as of April 29, 2013.
Generally speaking, the Jerusalem affairs minister is charged with developing the dialogue between the government and the Jewish communities abroad; thus, at the beginning of its formation, it was associated with the Diaspora portfolio. As such, administering Jewish donations earmarked for Jerusalem are one of its major tasks, to invest in the development and growth of projects for the capital.