How the ‘marathon runner’ Nir Barkat fell off track

How did Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s promising former mayor, get sidelined by Netanyahu?

Nir Barkat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu present the Likud economic plan during a party event in Tel Aviv on February 16. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Nir Barkat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu present the Likud economic plan during a party event in Tel Aviv on February 16.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Meat was piled on plates inside the lavish ballroom at the Airport City convention center as thousands of activists bused in from around the country. Their names and contact information were taken at the entrance, where they were each given a signed book.
As the room filled up, the man of the hour took to the stage. Nir Barkat, the popular former mayor of Jerusalem, opened the evening, thanking his guests for coming for the launch his new memoir Marathon Runner.
Singer Sarit Hadad came on stage and sang Barkat her popular song “Ata Totach [You are awesome]” that she once sang to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Then Hadad introduced a surprise guest of honor, Sara Netanyahu, the premier’s wife.
Barkat took the sparkling microphone, kissed Sara on the cheek and praised her and her husband before she congratulated him and promised to read his book.
“The prime minister really wanted to come and strengthen Nir, but he is in security briefings,” said Sara of her husband, who earlier delivered a message by video.
ALL SMILES with Netanyahu and Likud supporter Rami Levy as Barkat receives ‘one of his first missions as finance minister,’ at one of Levy’s supermarkets in February. (Fabian Koldorff)ALL SMILES with Netanyahu and Likud supporter Rami Levy as Barkat receives ‘one of his first missions as finance minister,’ at one of Levy’s supermarkets in February. (Fabian Koldorff)
For veteran Likud Central Committee members the event last October would go down in history as the fanciest, most expensive and best organized political rally they had ever attended. For Barkat it was crucial in helping him cultivate an image as the ultimate success story: A hi-tech venture capitalist worth NIS 500 million, a marathon runner and a successful politician who rose from mayor of Jerusalem to a top-10 slot on the Likud’s national list.
Sara Netanyahu’s congratulations at the time were seen as a message to those Likud activists that Barkat’s future in the party was bright –  the closest thing Israel has to a royal announcement of ascension. In a well-timed interview the following weekend, Barkat declared he would be “prime minister after the Netanyahu era.”
But last month something happened. Barkat, who was certain he would receive a top ministry in the new coalition, was instead sidelined by Netanyahu and left out of the cabinet. Why?
While the Netanyahus did not like the October interview, they kept quiet. Just four months later, the prime minister announced at a campaign event in Or Yehuda that Barkat would be the party’s candidate for finance minister.
Ahead of the announcement, Barkat dramatically cut short a visit to the US on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America. He arrived in the US, received a message from Netanyahu, and before boarding a flight back to Israel, taped a video message to the ZOA that he needed to hurry back to Jerusalem at Netanyahu’s request.
His quick return raised speculation that he would be appointed finance minister immediately, replacing Moshe Kahlon, who in any case was quitting politics. Barkat indeed was led to believe that the appointment could happen upon his arrival.
THE LEAKING of the appointment raised the ire of senior Likud figures who pressured Netanyahu to not let it happen, at least not yet.
But sources close to Netanyahu in the Likud campaign said that regardless of what Barkat was told, receiving the post straight away was never in the cards.
“He flew back just to be announced as finance minister-designate,” a source close to Netanyahu who was involved in the decision said. “There were never plans for him to replace Kahlon during the campaign.”
Barkat had taken polls indicating that if Netanyahu would announce his candidacy to head the Treasury, the Likud would gain as many as five seats. Netanyahu’s own polls indicated that the impact would be much less than that, but the polls revealed that such an announcement would create a much-needed positive push.
USING EACH other? Barkat and Miri Regev marvel over fruit as they tour an Ashdod market in April 2019. (Flash90) USING EACH other? Barkat and Miri Regev marvel over fruit as they tour an Ashdod market in April 2019. (Flash90)
“In campaigns you try to add support at any given time, and we were looking for issues or people who could give the party momentum,” a source in the Likud campaign said. “We checked out several possibilities. Barkat had a positive image, because he came from hi-tech, is successful, looks young and knows how to present reforms that were popular with younger voters and the middle class.”
Another Likud campaign official added: “We used him to generate public discourse about the economy. The prime minister had been there for 10 years, so we needed Barkat to make it look like there would be new blood and new plans.”
With two two weeks left in the campaign, Barkat became Netanyahu’s running mate, like in American presidential elections. Netanyahu took him to high-profile campaign appearances at the Port of Ashdod and a Rami Levy supermarket.
Alongside Barkat, whose arm was on Levy’s shoulder, Netanyahu promised that his government’s first reform with Barkat as finance minister would be dramatically lowering the price of food in supermarkets. Netanyahu handed Barkat a receipt and told him his first mission as finance minister would be to cut the price in half.
Despite what seemed to be a successful match, Likud sources revealed that the announcement caused significant resentment inside party ranks, especially among established figures who did not want to see Barkat skip over them while using his fortune to fund what appeared to be manipulative and questionable polls.
“He conducted a major operation to advance himself,” a source in the Likud campaign said. “He definitely lobbied. Barkat pushed himself with a lot of people.”
LIKUD FIGURES like Israel Katz, Miri Regev and Yariv Levin made their resentment known to Netanyahu between the March 2 election and when Netanyahu distributed the Likud’s cabinet portfolios last month. Barkat’s competition for senior cabinet posts as well as Likud Central Committee activists who have disliked him for years actively campaigned to prevent his appointment.
They emphasized Barkat’s past in Kadima, accused him of connections to left-wing groups, spun dovish steps he took as mayor and revealed attempts to gain support in the Likud by registering haredim and others who do not actually vote for the party.
One connection that apparently resonated with Netanyahu was Barkat’s friendship and past employment of strategist Eyal Arad, who was Netanyahu’s spokesman as ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s and helped him launch his political career. For 20 years, Arad has been among the most vocal of Netanyahu’s critics, strategizing for Kadima and other parties. Likudniks said Barkat told them he had fired Arad.
Arad, who was Barkat’s strategist in his campaigns for mayor, denied allegations by Likud sources that he still actively advises him and that he urged Barkat to make recent controversial statements against Katz’s policies and Finance Ministry professionals. But Arad does advise BRM, the private investment fund of the Barkat family, which made millions last month when Intel acquired the public transit navigation app developer Moovit App Global Ltd. for an estimated $1 billion. BRM owned a 16 % stake in the company.
To political insiders, it was clear even before Netanyahu announced Barkat’s candidacy for the Finance Ministry that if the Likud had only one senior post, it would go to Katz – who was foreign minister, chaired Netanyahu’s reelection campaign for party leader in December, and as head of the Likud’s governing secretariat for 20 years, holds sensitive information about how Netanyahu has managed the party’s money.
But education minister was seen as a likely appointment for Barkat, who entered politics on that issue 18 years ago and held the Education portfolio for a decade as Jerusalem mayor. Many Likud politicians wanted the plum portfolio, including Gila Gamliel, Ze’ev Elkin, Yuval Steinitz and Yoav Gallant, but Barkat and Gallant were the finalists.
Anonymous text messages alleged to have been funded by Barkat were sent to Likud activists and other public influencers attacking Gallant. He has also been accused of using anonymous messages to besmirch Katz. But Barkat has denied ever using anonymous text messages.
Regardless, Netanyahu decided to give the job to Gallant, a former IDF general who is valued by Netanyahu as the party’s top security figure.
THE PORTFOLIOS that Netanyahu earmarked for Barkat were the ministerial liaison to the Knesset and a new post he crafted for him: Minister of Cybersecurity. That post was seen as perfect for Barkat, who started his hi-tech career by investing in anti-virus software and companies like Check Point and Backweb. Barkat rejected the offer.
“It was clear to me that I did not want to take a junior portfolio,” Barkat told Channel 12. “I decided I would prefer to be a Knesset member and deal with complex and important issues I want to advance.”
Barkat said he “didn’t come for small things but for heavy lifting” and criticized small portfolios for conflicting with other ministries.
But Likud sources revealed that Barkat seriously considered Netanyahu’s offer and turned it down after realizing that becoming cybersecurity minister would require him to sign intrusive conflict of interest agreements and take complicated steps to sever himself from BRM and other business interests, which already have been in a blind trust controlled by his brother for 18 years.
TAKING THE stage with Sara Netanyahu at the Airport City launch of his memoir ‘Marathon Runner’ in October. (Fabian Koldorff) TAKING THE stage with Sara Netanyahu at the Airport City launch of his memoir ‘Marathon Runner’ in October. (Fabian Koldorff)
“Even if I would want to, I can’t take it,” Barkat told Netanyahu.
Instead both posts went to David Amsalem, a former Jerusalem city councilman who is not experienced in cybersecurity but is among the politicians Netanyahu can count on to attack the legal establishment. At this Sunday’s cabinet meeting, ministers approved a portfolio for Amsalem that did not include cybersecurity, which turned out to be too complicated to transfer to a new ministry.
When asked by reporters at the Knesset why he did not keep his promise to appoint Barkat finance minister, Netanyahu said the promise was dependent on Likud forming a right-wing government.
“[I promised him] in a narrow government, not a unity government,” said Netanyahu, who never made such a designation during the campaign.
It was not the first time Netanyahu deceived Barkat about a portfolio. He promised to appoint him minister of Jerusalem affairs without leaving his post as mayor ahead of the 2015 election.
Barkat did not express disappointment in the Channel 12 interview, saying: “He did intend to appoint me in a government with a lot of portfolios for Likud. In a national unity government, there are fewer than half the portfolios for Likud.”
In that same interview, Barkat claimed that he received an annual salary of one shekel as an MK, just as he did as mayor. Knesset spokesmen said this was not true. Barkat, Katz and Naftali Bennett, who have expressed interest in cutting or refusing money, could donate their salary of some NIS 44,000, the spokesmen said, but it is technically impossible to refuse it.
Faced with that reality, Barkat has refused to give his bank account information to the Knesset. He has used his own car instead of taking one from the Knesset and is the only MK whose expenses are not being returned. More than a million shekels in salary and his budget for “connections with voters” have not been touched, and Barkat has proposed a bill allowing MKs to take voluntary pay cuts.
“As Jerusalem mayor, they also said no to me receiving a salary, and I said sue me,” Barkat has said. “It’s delusional.”
THAT REFUSAL to take a salary has resonated with the public which polls show is fed up with a bloated government packed with ministers. Even though they are not ministers, the two candidates seen by the public as the most likely successors to Netanyahu as Likud leader are Barkat and MK Gideon Sa’ar, according to surveys taken by Barkat’s American pollster Doug Schoen, who also took polls for another wealthy former mayor, former US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
GARBAGE PILES up in Jerusalem in 2018, as Barkat went head to head with then-finance minister Moshe Kahlon in a bid to increase the capital’s share of the national funding pie. (Marc Israel Sellem)GARBAGE PILES up in Jerusalem in 2018, as Barkat went head to head with then-finance minister Moshe Kahlon in a bid to increase the capital’s share of the national funding pie. (Marc Israel Sellem)
Sources close to Netanyahu denied that he left Barkat empty-handed because he saw him as a threat to the prime minister. But they confirmed that Netanyahu was lobbied by those in Likud who saw him as a threat.
When Barkat had just entered the Likud, top party figures cooperated with him because they saw him as politically harmless, and because his expenditures were legally unlimited until he officially declared his candidacy for Knesset.
That was why it made sense for now-Transportation Minister Miri Regev to cohost an enormous pre-holiday rally with Barkat when he was still Jerusalem mayor. Barkat paid for several thousand Likud activists to be bused in from around the country for a rally at the Jerusalem International Convention Center and slihot at the Western Wall.
Activists at the event commented that they did not know who was using who more: Regev using Barkat for his endless money or Barkat using Regev for her following in the party. The activists said they thought Regev had been the host and did not know it was really Barkat, who later made a serious effort to meet Likud activists all over the country during the October 2018 municipal races and after his term as mayor.
The activists came because of their loyalty to Regev and for the prayers at the event, which are rare for a secular party. Barkat got to speak at length to loyalists of Regev, who is very popular with the Likud’s voters of a lower socioeconomic status who might not otherwise have a connection with the wealthiest man in Israeli politics.
Using that same loophole, Barkat invited busloads of Likud Central Committee members to weekly events in the capital. He took them to the Mahaneh Yehuda market, had them enjoy an expensive meal and spoke to them on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the city.
“It smelled bad, like he was trying to buy our votes,” a Likud Central Committee member said.
Former state comptroller Joseph Shapira criticized Barkat for using the city’s social media networks to advance his candidacy for national office. Barkat was a frequent target of the comptroller, who fined him for spending too much on campaigns and condemned him for not doing enough to keep Jerusalem clean.
In his final year as mayor, Barkat led a vocal campaign against the Finance Ministry and personally against Kahlon to get more money for the city from the national government. Reportedly at the advice of Arad, Barkat played dirty.
He had city workers leave piles of trash in front of the Finance Ministry for days until the message was received. He also sent hundreds of city workers notices that they had been fired, which many of them took very seriously and caused anguish, until the workers were informed that their firing had been rescinded.
JERUSALEM CITY councilwoman Laura Wharton: ‘No one knows what he really believes in. He has been all over the map. He doesn’t have clear principles.’ (Douglas Guthrie)JERUSALEM CITY councilwoman Laura Wharton: ‘No one knows what he really believes in. He has been all over the map. He doesn’t have clear principles.’ (Douglas Guthrie)
KAHLON DID not want to reward Barkat for what he and Finance Ministry professionals saw as the mismanagement of the capital and not using state funding properly.
The Central Bureau of Statistics conducts an annual study of the socioeconomic standing of municipalities. During Barkat’s two terms as mayor, Jerusalem went from the fourth-worst group of cities to the second-worst group, with only haredi, Bedouin and Arab towns being rated as worse to live in.
“He was certainly no business success story when it came to raising the socioeconomic standing of the city,” said Jerusalem city councilwoman Laura Wharton (Meretz), who often sparred with Barkat on the city council.
Wharton said Barkat originally courted Meretz to his coalition before he became more right-wing. She said he swerved so far to the Right that he had to be stopped from razing 44 homes in the Arab neighborhood Silwan.
“He was originally left-wing and centrist and then in Kadima before he decided Likud was the best way to promote himself,” she said. “No one knows what he really believes in. He has been all over the map. He doesn’t have clear principles.”
Barkat has defended himself by saying that he respected prime minister Ariel Sharon and followed him to Kadima when 80% of it was Likudniks. He left the party when Kadima former minister Haim Ramon’s plans for dividing Jerusalem were revealed.
Raised in a nonpolitical family and then serving in the army and making his career in hi-tech, Barkat has said that while he did not express a political viewpoint until age 42, in retrospect he believes he has been right-wing his whole life.
Wharton –  and other city council members who spoke off-record –  saved their harshest criticism for decisions Barkat made at the end of his term which helped the haredim take over mixed neighborhoods in Jerusalem after preventing them from doing so in previous years, charges Barkat has repeatedly denied.
“He ran on a platform of supporting the secular and national-religious, but at the end of his term when he was looking to run for national office, he started making deals with the ultra-Orthodox, which made parties leave his coalition,” she said. “It didn’t end up helping him enough.”
She referred to reports that Knesset Finance Committee head Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) was among the MKs who lobbied Netanyahu not to appoint Barkat a minister. Gafni has denied the reports both publicly and privately to Barkat, who was told by other top haredi leaders that they wanted him as finance minister.
Another group that campaigned against Barkat were Likud activists in Jerusalem, who were angry that after they took a risk and divided their branch to support his mayoral run, he broke promises to them to not seek national office.
“WE CAME to his house and he asked for our support in the national election,” a Likud Central Committee member recalled. “We told him we could not support him after he betrayed us and abandoned the city for his national run.”
But the endorsement from Netanyahu, Barkat’s campaigning around the country and the activists he brought to Jerusalem did their part and helped Barkat win the ninth slot on the Likud list. With the fourth-place Gilad Erdan headed to Washington, Barkat was seen as a shoo-in for a cabinet slot.
When he was not appointed, he reminded the public that he is a marathon runner, and both he and Netanyahu said that Barkat’s time would come soon. He would continue supporting Netanyahu, Barkat affirmed.
He even said he hoped something would happen to prevent the changeover in the Prime Minister’s Office in November 2021 to Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz.
“During the campaign I claimed, as did my colleagues in the Likud, that Gantz doesn’t have the qualifications or the experience, and I have not changed my opinion,” Barkat told Channel 13. “He doesn’t have the economic experience, the international view, the broad perspective which is necessary to be the prime minister. To my great happiness, Netanyahu continues to lead the country. I am committed, like all of the Likud, to the agreement, and I hope that in the next year and a half there will be a change.”
Barkat was among the MKs who publicly supported Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court when the prime minister’s trial began, coming as a friend and without the knowledge that Netanyahu would give such a highly charged speech attacking the legal establishment.
What could have been Barkat’s inner thoughts were portrayed in the satire television show Eretz Nehederet.
BARKAT TAKES an election-night photo with a Bibi-masked man at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)BARKAT TAKES an election-night photo with a Bibi-masked man at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
“What am I doing here?” he was portrayed as saying in his head. “I am Nir Barkat. I was mayor of Jerusalem. I am a billionaire. I didn’t even get a portfolio, even though he promised me the Finance Ministry. How did I fall for a trick that 20 people before me fell for? And to humiliate me, he gave it to Israel Katz?”
But Barkat does not need a satire show to reveal his thoughts. He has not withheld controversial statements publicly.
He has admitted that he is “not comfortable with” the size of the government, and he continues to regularly criticize the professionals in the Finance Ministry that he did not get to control.
Barkat told Channel 12 that he did not believe he was skipped over to “cut his wings.” He said he would meet monthly with Netanyahu, who “likes to hear my ideas.” But he also sounded eager for the day Netanyahu’s career would be over.
“The day after he leaves, I will know how to run and win in the Likud and get the public’s trust to be prime minister,” he said.
Like in a marathon, time will tell if he can go the distance.

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