Passover interview with Jerusalem Mayor, Moshe Lion

What would happen if you’re invited to a bat mitzvah that takes place in the “egalitarian” area? First I’d say no, but then I would check the case. Progressive Jewry is not a problem in Jerusalem.

Moshe Lion, 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Moshe Lion, 2019.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In office for nearly five months, Mayor Moshe Lion’s major achievements include NIS 950m. for the city’s budget, obtained over a cup of coffee with the Treasury minister; an agreement with the government to build 23,000 housing units in the city; and an agreement with the municipal sanitation workers committee to begin working also on Saturday nights.
As important as these achievements are, Lion has yet to prove that his good ties with ministers and high-ranking government officials as well as his skills as mediator between opponents will be enough to run the most complex city in the country – and perhaps in the world.
In Jerusalem interviewed him this week. 
Last week you said, “You’re boring me” to councilwoman Einav Bar-Cohen from the opposition Hitorerut list. Despite your reputation as a person with good manners, you haven’t yet apologized. Do you want to now?
Since the start of my term, Hitorerut has been bothering us in every meeting. You know that most of my staff is female and you cannot say I am disrespectful to women. I said, and I repeat, that I did not intend to harm anyone. Look at what they said and how I responded, and you can put it in perspective. They can make noise because they are the opposition, but they have to be respectful.
On the issue of east Jerusalem, would you support the removal of Arab neighborhoods located beyond the security fence from the jurisdiction of Jerusalem, and hence change the demographic trend, since the residents in these three neighborhoods number about 18,000?
I haven’t heard of any such plan. I think it is a baseless rumor and anyway I am against any plan to divide Jerusalem. Remove them from Jerusalem and then what? Form a separate authority? That would mean that rockets – like from Gaza – would be on the way. They would fire from there. I am in favor of them being an authority under the city that would be run from here and help those neighborhoods.
You mean they would shoot rockets and build tunnels?
Yes, both. Could be tunnels first. We wouldn’t be able to control the security in the area.
But what about the demographic question?
This is not the way to address that issue. To guarantee a Jewish majority, we need to attract more young people to come and more to stay. For that purpose, I formed an umbrella agreement with the government to build as much as possible. We hope this will succeed.
What are your plans to help Arab residents improve their quality of life?
I have been working on this since I started my function as mayor. The national government approved a plan for hundreds of classrooms, infrastructure, streets, sewers and more in the eastern side. We will build a pool in Beit Hanina. More public institutions. I met recently with people in New York who want to contribute to equality and better conditions for the Arab residents. As much as possible needs to be invested in infrastructure in the eastern part of the city.
It’s not all about infrastructure, how about the economy there? Will you build malls, too?
Yes, certainly. I want to build three. Building malls ensures economic growth. Malls cause employment and a positive economic environment.
But if they have malls in their neighborhoods, won’t they stop coming to the western side?
No, they will keep on coming and cooperation will continue – but people also need shopping centers in the neighborhoods where they live.
The local and district planning committees are submitting and approving grandiose building plans with skyscrapers. When was a decision to change the skyline of Jerusalem decided upon? Are the residents involved? And what about infrastructure?
All massive building requires proper infrastructure. With a certain amount of building, there must be schools and public institutions. There will be streets. Don’t worry. If we want young people to come back to the city and have economic growth here, the solution is building that will bring growth. There is no land available, so we need urban renewal in a responsible way. I launched a building site in Kiryat Yovel for 270 housing units. I will build thousands of apartments with proper infrastructure.
Are you confronted with ongoing demands of the haredi partners in your coalition? Should the secular residents be concerned?
So much was said in the campaign. I said I wouldn’t close the shuk or the First Station. I said everyone would get what they deserve. I want everyone to live together without conflict. There will always be disagreements, but I am in charge and am making sure there won’t be problems.
Look at what we did for the holiday recently. There hasn’t been a Purim like this in decades – festivities all over the city center and in many neighborhoods. It didn’t just happen by itself; I worked on it. The residents were proud of what was done and felt good.
It will be the same with Yom Ha’atzmaut – and I made sure there will be singers who are Jerusalemites on every stage as well.
Yet one of your deputies, Eliezer Rauchberger (United Judaism) canceled his participation in a panel at the last minute just because it was scheduled to take place in a venue that belongs to the Conservative Movement. Have you spoken to him bout that? Did it embarrass you?
I was not aware of that, but certainly, I think everyone needs to be treated well.
‘THERE HASN’T been a Purim like this [recent one] in decades – festivities all over the city center and in many neighborhoods. It didn’t just happen by itself; I worked on it.’ (Marc Israel Sellem)‘THERE HASN’T been a Purim like this [recent one] in decades – festivities all over the city center and in many neighborhoods. It didn’t just happen by itself; I worked on it.’ (Marc Israel Sellem)
Regarding the tensions and conflicts at the Mahaneh Yehuda market, do you plan to change things? You recently formed a committee of merchants and bar owners to achieve some order between the parties.
I want everything to be organized and there must be dialogue. When representatives of the shuk and the night clubs talk, that is helpful. We first lengthened the hours of the public bathrooms Thursday nights; they are now open till 3 a.m. We are upgrading the cleaning to make sure it will be cleaned at night. There are also problems of the residents that must be solved; we must ensure the quality of life of the residents.
Aren’t the haredi representatives pressuring you to stop the fun, to close down night bars?
I haven’t been asked to do that. It seems like political spin.
Will you establish a special neighborhood for the US Embassy and the additional embassies planning to move to Jerusalem?
I recommended that the US Embassy be located on Hebron Road and Yanovsky. That way they wouldn’t have to evacuate the residents of the Diplomat Hotel. The embassy is considering options. I’ve met with American State Department officials on the options. There are alternatives. They haven’t decided on the final place.
Does that mean that there is a chance that the some 500 olim living in the Diplomat will not have to be evacuated?
Yes, that’s the idea, but we’re not there yet. We’re working on it. We are looking for a whole area for embassies. It can be called “Embassy Town.” I will do what I can to bring more embassies here. I met with Romania, the Czechs, Honduras and others, but it is still too early to say.
What do you expect from next government?
That they continue helping Jerusalem.
Will you take action to prevent governmental offices (like the Post Office Authority) from leaving the city or refrain from coming here despite the law requiring them to do so?
That is populism. The Postal Authority built their building (in Modi’in) two years ago. There were sanctions that were supposed to kick in, but ministries went to the prime minister and said there weren’t proper offices. There is a severe shortage here of office buildings. We will build and this will help bring back government ministries.
I have spoken to Postal Authority and Communications Ministry officials to find partial solutions to the problem. The entire entrance to the city project will be expedited. But as of now, 95% of office spaces in the city are taken.
You were chairman of Israel Railways a few years ago.  How do you explain its problems?
This is one of the most ambitious projects in the country. It will take another few months. I think by September or December it will function normally and then it will no longer make sense to commute to and from Tel Aviv by car.
What is your position regarding the light rail – especially regarding the Emek Refaim segment?
The light rail on Emek Refaim is a mega-issue that very much concerns me. I want to be 100% sure before a final decision is made. All government offices believe this is the only solution. I met with the Finance and Transportation ministries and the regional committee, and they all say there is no other choice. I froze the decision anyway – but it doesn’t look like it will change.
How long will it take to build?
No longer than five years, I hope.
What is your position regarding developments at the Kotel? These things are happening in the city you run.
The whole issue  is under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office and I am not involved.
But you are the mayor. What would happen if you’re invited to a bat mitzvah that takes place in the “egalitarian” area?
First I’d say no, but then I would have to check it on a case-by-case basis. I am in favor of dialogue. Progressive Jewry is not a problem in Jerusalem.
What is your position regarding Shas controlling the city council’s Absorption portfolio?
This issue is close to my heart. I have an adviser on the issue – Shmulik Marciano, who holds the portfolio, is from France and looks at the issue as a whole, not as a haredi. We decided to make our website available in English, French, Arabic and Amharic. I think aliya will help employment. The olim from the US, France and Russia are helpful to the city. I am advancing an ecosystem with our quality of aliya, Hebrew University and hospitals to create a win-win situation with start-ups.
What about the city’s phone system being only in Hebrew and Arabic?
It will also be in English in the months ahead.