Analysis: Barkat’s Silwan plans make for strange bedfellows

For many, Barkat's actions have positioned himself as a sort of rogue leader.

barkat speaks 311 (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
barkat speaks 311
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
While Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is still very much embroiled in an internal legal battle at City Hall regarding zoning codes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, the stance he has taken regarding the neighborhood’s Jewish-owned Beit Yehonatan structure, along with his broader plan to legalize most of the now-illegal structures in the area, has earned him the support of an odd coalition of right-wing, left-wing and Arab politicians, along with many of their constituents.
The mayor’s right-wing support is born out of an interest to preserve the Jewish presence in buildings like Beit Yehonatan, while his left-wing and Arab supporters see Barkat’s rezoning plan – of which his recent defense of Beit Yehonatan is a part – as both a means to do away with the large number of pending demolition orders for Arab-owned homes in the neighborhood and a way to prevent the possibly violent fallout that carrying out such large-scale demolitions might spark.
Under the rezoning proposal, the number of stories permitted in area buildings would be increased to four. The effect would be to retroactively legalize many of the Arab structures currently targeted for demolition, as well as reduce the potential damage to Beit Yehonatan.
For his part, Barkat has positioned himself as a sort of rogue leader, bucking attempts by State Attorney Moshe Lador and City Attorney Yossi Havilio to force him into carrying out the evacuation and sealing of Beit Yehonatan, and pushing ahead with his re-zoning efforts to create a new reality in the neighborhood.
Regardless of why Barkat’s supporters have thrown their weight behind him, all of them said on Monday that they believed the mayor was choosing to stand and fight because he believed in the issue at hand, and that it was something he felt had to be done.
“I think he’s pursuing this issue so determinedly because he truly believes in it,”  Jerusalem Deputy Mayor and Meretz leader Pepe Alalo told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “It’s something that he feels needs to be taken care of.”
While Alalo said he did not share Barkat’s zeal for refusing to evacuate Beit Yehonatan, he did say that the legalizing of up to 90 percent of structures built in Silwan without the proper permits – Barkat’s stated goal – was worth supporting.
“I think it’s a good solution to a serious problem, even though I believe that Beit Yehonatan should be evacuated,” Alalo said.
“Overall, Barkat’s plan offers an opportunity to actually do something [about the problem of illegal housing in Silwan], and we have to give it a shot.”
Meir Margalit, another Meretz-affiliated city councilman, told the Post that while he didn’t support the mayor in a general sense, he did support him “on this specific issue.”
“I see it as a package deal,” Margalit said. “And if it takes allowing Beit Yehonatan to remain in order to ensure that these additional [Arab-owned] homes aren’t demolished, then it’s worth it. It’s a humanitarian issue, and while I’d like to see the settler groups out of Silwan, I don’t see the point in throwing anyone out of their home, when simply rezoning the area could solve the majority of these problems.”
This, Margalit explained, was the essence of Barkat’s struggle. By very publicly taking on the legal advisers at City Hall, the mayor was effectively exposing the absurdity of the law’s application in Silwan, with the hope that common sense would prevail.
“The law, as it stands, does not work in east Jerusalem,” Margalit said. “We have one law and we’re trying to apply it to three separate population sectors.
“I know that in a democratic country that’s how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t believe that we’re living in a democratic country. We need to find solutions for the haredi sector and the Arab sector, and that’s going to involve thinking outside of the box.”
Furthermore, Margalit added, the mass demolition of homes in Silwan would likely result in violence, a possibility Barkat himself has alluded to.
“Barkat has claimed that if Beit Yehonatan were to be evacuated and then a large number of Arab homes were demolished, blood would be spilled,” Margalit said. “And he didn’t make that up. His security sources have told him this, and I think they have good reasons for saying so.”
“A responsible mayor, or country for that matter, doesn’t need to play with fire. And we have enough pyromaniacs in this city who want to start fires of their own.”
Likud member and city councilman Elisha Peleg, who was at Beit Yehonatan on Monday to show support for its residents, acknowledged the strange bedfellows created by Barkat’s plan, but said that creative solutions were the only way to solve the current impasse.
“It’s true that there is an unusual consensus on this issue,” Peleg said. “But Barkat is not an idiot, and he knows that it makes more sense to find a creative solution than to demolish an entire neighborhood. It makes more sense to just rezone it.”
Peleg added that his support for the plan was based in his opposition “to the eviction of Jews from their homes.”
Peleg also said that he had requested the creation of an independent body to investigate why Havilio hadn’t acted as stringently with other court orders in the area as he is now acting with regard to Beit Yehonatan.
“There is an European Union building in Silwan that is also built without the correct permits,” Peleg said. “It has five stories, whereas currently, only up to two stories are legal in Silwan. Why is that building not being dealt with?”
Even Arab MK Taleb a-Sanaa (Ra’am Ta’al), who in December made waves when he broadcast a speech by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh using his telephone, told the Post that he supported Barkat’s plan.
“Absolutely,” a-Sanaa said on Monday evening. “Any solution that allows people to continue living their lives is a good one. Demolitions are not solutions.”
While a-Sanaa clarified that he was firmly opposed to “Jewish settlement in the heart of east Jerusalem,” he said he was willing to remain supportive of Barkat’s initiative, even if it covered Beit Yehonatan.
“I hope to see a law created that will cover all of the residents of the neighborhood,” a-Sanaa said. “If that’s what it takes to allow people to avoid the catastrophe that is demolitions, then so be it.”
The mayor’s office also responded on Monday, saying that Barkat’s initiative was one worth pursuing, even if it meant continued legal friction.
“Mayor Barkat would be moving forward with the rezoning in Silwan even if Beit Yehonatan didn’t exist,” Barkat aide Stephan Miller told the Post on Monday. “He is committed to serving all residents of Jerusalem equally and tackling a decades-old problems that no other mayor dared address.”