Ze’ev Elkin: Here on a mission

An interview with Likud's candidate for mayor

Zeev Elkin
Less than an hour after he landed, returning from an official visit to Ukraine, Jerusalem Affairs Minister and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin showed up at the terrace of a café close to his Environment Ministry office to talk about his plans for Jerusalem. Following the findings of the recent poll published on Channel 2 news – and according to Elkin, also based on additional internal polls – he sees his chances to become Jerusalem’s next mayor as more than fair. But Elkin, known for his cautiousness, emphasizes that nothing is sure and lot of work has still to be done until that goal is reached.
Without a jacket, but with long sleeves, sipping a milkshake, Elkin answered questions from In Jerusalem about his plans and vision.
Elkin is not the first minister to express more interest in running the city than in national affairs – former mayor Ehud Olmert came to the city in 1993 after he lost his position as health minister, due to the defeat of his party, the Likud, in the 1992 elections. In contrast, Elkin is still a minister, and a key member of the prestigious cabinet. Moreover, he is very close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sends him on sensitive missions abroad. Beyond this, Elkin is the first-ever candidate for mayor of Jerusalem who has won the official and public support of a prime minister. A picture of Elkin with Netanyahu features prominently on his campaign posters in the city, strengthening the sense that Elkin has special access to the highest levels of the national government.
Are you a regular candidate running for the position of mayor, or are you more of an emissary of the prime minister to accomplish a political mission here?
I am not an emissary in that sense. I decided to run – against the prime minister’s will – because I have very deep and strong feelings for Jerusalem, which is not just another city. When I told him about my decision, he tried to dissuade me. But I have a comprehensive vision that I want to advance of what should be done to benefit Jerusalem.
The residents of Jerusalem may be concerned that a minister who leaves such a position and comes to run the city may not be the best choice for the job. How can you persuade potential voters to believe that you can really care about mundane things like garbage, cleaning the streets and opening new schools and kindergartens? Are these issues of interest for you?
First of all, as environment minister, I am quite familiar with issues of garbage and dumping; I know a lot about these. I am aware of these aspects of city management and I believe I can do the necessary things to make Jerusalem the best place it can be to live in. It’s not only about cleaning – there are a lot of issues at stake that I plan to address.
Can you give us a few concrete examples regarding your plans?
One of the most urgent things is to boost the economy of the city, to develop its business stature, to add more economic opportunities, especially where it is most lacking – in the Arab and the haredi sectors.
Developing commercial opportunities is a good thing, but who will shop in the new businesses? Jerusalemites can’t afford it; this city is the poorest in the country. The state enables many local residents by law to pay reduced city taxes, or none at all. And you want to build them more malls and more shopping opportunities?
This is one of the things I plan to help solve. Why is the Jerusalem Municipality so poor that it needs significant annual assistance from the state? Because we do not have enough businesses here – whether low or hi-tech – to pay the high range of taxes. Why is Tel Aviv a prosperous city? Because the Tel Aviv municipality (and other cities) collect high taxes from hi-tech firms and other businesses that boost their economy. There is no reason Jerusalem shouldn’t be the same, but this requires planning and wise investment.
That’s part of my vision and approach. Jerusalem will always need the support of special budgets from the state – but we have to reduce excessive dependence. In the past decade, we have jumped from NIS 80 million of subsidies per year to NIS 800m. We can’t go on like that, adding about NIS 150m. each year. Jerusalem has to become more self-sustaining – and this is possible only through development in targeted fields of business and the economy.
How will you achieve that goal?
The first step is create more opportunities to better integrate Arabs and haredim into the city’s economy. I’m talking, for example, about low-tech industries for which these two sectors are currently well suited. They are low-expense workers, the type of employees that Israeli investors seek in Jordan and other places. Why not use these Jerusalemites first? That’s one of the initial goals I intend to pursue. I will also create more opportunities for women – haredi and Arab – to join the labor force.
Nir Barkat has already taken vital initial steps toward these goals, for example with the new business quarter rising at the entrance of the city. I am planning to carry on and do much more.
Does that mean that you plan to invest in the Arab and haredi sectors?
Jerusalem is one city. You might recall that on Jerusalem Day, I promoted the government’s decision to grant NIS 2 billion for infrastructure and classrooms in Arab neighborhoods. That is the direction and there will be more over the coming years. We have to develop the entire city so it flourishes, and this is possible. The same goes for the haredi sector. There are so many employment opportunities that can be advanced in this sector to raise the standard of living and increase the pool of employers – low- and hi-tech, small and medium businesses – that will pay city taxes that boost the economy of municipality.
What else can you do or change in the Arab sector?
We will foster greater involvement in the city’s economy through education, promoting the Israeli matriculation to open doors, and so on.
You are associated with right-wing politics, you are a member of the Likud and you are part of the national religious society. But Jerusalem’s population is very varied, including settlers and their supporters, modern Orthodox, Arabs, haredim, liberals, left-wing religious and more. Can you gather them all behind you? Will they all vote for you, in addition to your Likud supporters?
I can talk to all of them, reach out to all streams of our society. I have included Fleur Hassan-Nahoum in my list, for example. She will reach out to and resonate with the Anglo sector, which is a great thing. I am not worried about being viewed too narrowly.
What will your policy be regarding the presence of Jews in predominantly Arab neighborhoods? Will you encourage that?
I believe that in a city, everybody can live wherever they want. Jews in Arab neighborhoods, Arabs in Jewish neighborhoods – as long as law and order are kept, that’s how it works. I do not intend to interfere in that issue at all.