The story of a tumultuous friendship

Peggy Cidor interviews Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman.

Meir Turgeman
Somewhere in the beginning of the new millennium, Nir Barkat, a successful hi-tech entrepreneur, and Meir Turgeman, president of the Gilo neighborhood council, became friends. Though on the surface they seemed to have nothing in common, the two shared one major thing: concern for the city, and more specifically, for its residents.
Those were the days of mayor Ehud Olmert, and quite a few issues were at stake – such as education services, and a lack of budgets for neighborhoods and community centers. Barkat and Turgeman began to be seen together on many occasions.
Turgeman was active in favor of the neighborhood councils, and Barkat launched initiatives to open registration for junior high schools. Turgeman didn’t hide his ambition to reach the city council, though Barkat was still hesitant.
A couple of years passed, and by the beginning of 2003, as Olmert left his position to join Ariel Sharon’s government, the two friends were ready to break into the local political scene.
In the election of June 2003, Uri Lupolianski became mayor, and Barkat led a six-seat list at the head of the city council’s opposition, one of the six being Turgeman.
But soon enough, the two men, who had set off for politics hand in hand, stopped seeing things from the same angle. Such disagreements finally broke the alliance, and Turgeman left the list, harshly criticizing Barkat’s actions. Within a few weeks, the two had become bitter enemies.
In 2008, Barkat won the election and fulfilled his dream of becoming mayor of Jerusalem.
Turgeman, who ran for city council, was the only member not invited to join Barkat’s wallto- wall coalition. The following years witnessed some of the harshest and most bitter debates between the two, with one case culminating in Barkat calling the police to throw Turgeman out of the meeting hall.
Barkat was reelected in 2013, and this time Turgeman is once more on the mayor’s list. The two seem to have reached an understanding and are working together again, with Turgeman being, as in years past, one of the people closest to the mayor. This has garnered him the title – and salary – of one of the eight deputy mayors.
This week, almost two years since the election, Turgeman spoke to In Jerusalem about the development of his relationship with Barkat, his tasks as deputy mayor, and his position on some of the most sensitive issues at hand.
Can you tell us what brought about this change in your relations with Barkat, and how it is working out for you today? I must admit that I am surprised – and firstly, positively surprised by myself. I am also surprised by the quality and depth of the cooperation between the mayor and me. I must admit, I didn’t expect this quality and intensity of cooperation.
Do you talk about the past with the mayor? We had a long conversation a few weeks ago, during which we raised that issue. The mayor concluded, “Meir, we have both grown up since those days.” I absolutely agree – we are both in a different place now; we both understand that we need each other in order to promote initiatives for the city.
Now that we know the bad old days are behind you and Barkat, what are you working on these days?
The first major issue is the handling of the local neighborhood councils. I have the portfolio, and today we have 28 such councils – three of them in the Arab sector, where things are moving forward, and the haredi sector, where I have been amazed to see the huge transformation happening there, and the growing place haredi women are occupying and the actions they are taking.
Yet the status of the neighborhood councils is not overly improved, despite the changes Barkat introduced in his first term – which, I remember, you did not support at all? True, I did not like that change [which brought the local neighborhood councils under the supervision of the municipality, largely reducing their independent status], but today I have managed to improve quite a lot – not only their positions, but also their budgets, enabling them to launch many new initiatives and programs for the benefit of the residents.
Barkat himself realizes today that not everything he introduced then was the right thing to do.
So what you’re saying is that the municipality is withdrawing from those changes?
We have made a few adjustments, a few changes. We have enabled the local councils to get back to part of their former positions, with some limits. The representatives of the residents at the local councils bear in mind that they are operating as an arm of the municipality, they cannot operate against it. Today, the local councils are partners, not competing against the municipality.
However, the Darom neighborhood council [consisting of Rassco, Old Katamon and Katamon Het-Tet] did not toe the line – causing you to take the unpopular step of dismantling it.
In that local council specifically, all the redlines have been crossed. There has been violence, bullying. This is unacceptable.
Perhaps because from the beginning it was the municipality’s mistake to combine three neighborhoods that cannot work together? The only task of a local council is to serve the residents. Most of them do a good job, but it seems that at the Darom council, they don’t understand their mission.
For three-and-a-half years, from the elections to this day, they haven’t been able to reach one single decision for the interests of their residents – not even one!
So maybe it was not a good idea to bring together Rassco and Old Katamon, which are middle-class neighborhoods, with Katamon Het-Tet, which has a less well-established population? I completely disagree. And even if that was the case, they had enough time to find a way to cooperate. And by the way, we did the same in other neighborhoods – and it did work; it worked in Musrara.
Moreover, I believe that the wellestablished representatives in Rassco and Old Katamon should have shown more incentive in working toward some integration between the parties. But they didn’t do that; they even openly told me that they simply didn’t want to have the representatives of Katamon Het-Tet on the same board.
Perhaps you should have listened to them? You have to understand, things have gone out of control there – the police were called to bring back order at some [neighborhood council] board meetings, tires were punctured.
As holder of the Local Councils portfolio, I couldn’t stand by and not intervene. I asked for some outline that could work as a basis, asked them to pull themselves up. It didn’t help. And the mayor and I reached the conclusion that we had no other choice but to dismantle the Darom local council.
That’s it. End of story. But they keep doing things, including spending council money without permission. I am considering submitting a complaint to the police. Meanwhile, who will represent the residents?
Moving on to another issue: You’ve been replacing outgoing deputy mayor Kobi Kahlon at the head of the planning and construction committee. Now that he is resigning, will you ask to be official president of the committee? There are quite a few other candidates for the position. Everything will be fine.
And yet...? There is something much bigger at stake. Pay attention, you are the first journalist to hear this: Barkat has decided to enlarge his faction in the coalition.
Barkat’s list has gained four seats at the city council, and we are working to dramatically change the situation. Two members of Yerushalmim (Tamir Nir and Aaron Leibowitz) will join us; Itay Gutler, who is replacing [retiring Meretz council member] Pepe Alalu and is not from Meretz, but from Labor, is willing to join us; and Yael Antebi [representative of Pisgat Ze’ev] is also willing to move in. This will bring Barkat’s list to eight seats – equal to the haredi list [United Torah Judaism] – and it will of course have an extended impact on the coalition. This will happen in a matter of days, as negotiations are quite advanced.
This will radically alter the balance between the mayor and the haredi representatives? This will enable us to completely shift the present situation at the city council. That is absolutely the mayor’s brilliant move, and the credit totally goes to him.
What kind of changes will occur? All the present portfolios will be reshuffled.
And the planning committee will be in your hands? Yes.
But there are quite a few candidates for the position. You must be aware of this. Yes, of course, there is very heavy pressure on the mayor, especially – but not only – from the haredi representatives to obtain it.
So why should it be in your hands? It is first of all a matter of responsibility – this crucial committee requires a very responsible person at its helm.
Barkat has to keep it close; it cannot devolve into sectoral issues. And believe me, it is not a matter of honor; this committee requires so much work and time, but is so sensitive that it requires very careful handling.
Are you in a position to pledge to the residents that we will not have another Holyland scandal on your watch?
Unequivocally, I can promise that won’t happen again.
There are a few projects that have raised concern; for example, the project to build a luxury development in Lifta. What is your position? No, with a capital “N.” I am totally opposed to this project, and the mayor is opposed to it. It won’t happen. Never.
This place [Lifta] is a gem. We are going to do anything required to preserve it – like we ultimately did with the Gazelle Valley, instead of the huge construction project that was planned there.
Lifta will not become a built-up luxury neighborhood. It will be preserved and developed with all the care required to give it back to the residents of Jerusalem.
As for east Jerusalem, how deeply are you involved in the new plans to bridge the gaps between the two sides of the city, with all the neglect of the past 48 years? How realistic are all of Barkat’s plans? They are very realistic. This mayor has taken a decision and is planning a total change, not only in the atmosphere, but in the facts on the ground. It means plans, money, listening, openness. This is serious, and I work with him hand in hand on this matter.
But what about the neighborhoods that are beyond the security barrier? They are forgotten and lost areas.
I have a problem there, I admit. We cannot get there. This is a real problem, and frankly we can’t do much. The residents there are suffering terribly, I ache for them, but we really can’t do much. Recently I wasn’t even allowed to go there to see for myself, due to a decision of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the police.
So if your hands are tied, why doesn’t the municipality simply tell the government to take responsibility for these places? I agree, this is far beyond the municipality’s capacity. We have to bring it to the government.
Barkat has decided to enlarge his party in the coalition.... This will bring Barkat’s list to eight seats – equal to the haredi list [United Torah Judaism] – and it will of course have an extended impact on the coalition.