Prince of the city

Mayor Barkat says he can revive Jerusalem's economy and entice back the secular residents.

Nir Barkat east jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
Nir Barkat east jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
He speaks tersely, methodically, displaying little emotion, using the language of a business executive, not of a politician, convinced that he is turning around Israel’s poorest and the world’s most famous city.
The 52-year-old Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, believes that the trigger for lifting the Holy City out of its poverty and resolving its myriad controversies is economic growth, not advancing his own plan for resolving Jewish-Arab relations within the city.
Throughout more than 40 months on the job he has spoken and managed the city with the mindset of a corporate CEO, less so than of a politician. He frequently uses the words “organize” and “manage.”
Barkat is not oblivious to the way that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impacts Jerusalem. To fortify Israeli control over Jerusalem, he favors increasing the Israeli population in the Arab sectors of East Jerusalem. Based upon how little he speaks about boosting the economic life of the city’s 291,000 Arab residents, Barkat does not appear to give priority to improving their economic lot. The city’s Arabs are quite simply “not a challenge,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Nir Barkat’s election victory on November 11, 2008 took most Jerusalemites by surprise. It followed the five-year term of Uri Lupolianski, the city’s first ultra- Orthodox mayor. Had Barkat’s ultra- Orthodox opponents united against him, instead of bickering among themselves, and had the city’s secularists continued to be uncomfortable with getting into the political fray, as they had in the past, Barkat would have stood no chance of becoming mayor.
But, after founding a new party called Yerushalayim Tatzli’ah (Jerusalem Will Succeed), Barkat won office thanks to infighting among the religious groups and a newly energized secular community, eager to keep an ultra-Orthodox politician from becoming mayor for a second time.
Barkat took over a city that was suffering from increasing poverty, due largely to the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors and from a sharp increase in Jewish migration.
Jewish Jerusalemites, who number 497,000 today, were 74 percent of the city’s residents in 1967 but are now only 64 percent. The city, in Barkat’s view, also suffered from a disorganized and mismanaged city government and from souring Jewish-Arab relations after 30 Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem during the second intifada.
To change direction, to keep smoldering Arab resentments from boiling over into violence, to revitalize a city that contained a growing ultra-Orthodox population that was making Jerusalem more pious but poorer, Barkat decided to bolster the city’s private investment sector. The results, he contends, have been impressive. “Look at the skyline,” the mayor says proudly from behind his desk on the sixth floor of City Hall. “You will see lots of cranes, which is a good sign.” Believing that previous mayors, especially Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, did more for the development of the city than Barkat has, the mayor’s political foes say caustically that he is no modern-day Herod, the ancient builder of Jerusalem.
Barkat’s steady, formal manner and his decidedly nationalist perspective contrast sharply with the charismatic Teddy Kollek, who presided over Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993. Kollek was fiery, brusque, and fasttalking.
He sought to reconcile with the city’s post-1967 Palestinian population to such a degree that some Israelis called him pro-Arab. Indeed, Kollek did allow Arabs access to their holy sites, assailed fellow Jews for building neighborhoods within the newly-annexed Arab sector, and hinted that he might consider self-rule for neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Palestinian population
But Nir Barkat has none of Kollek’s flair and displays none of the former mayor’s sensitivity to the city’s Palestinian population.
No one would accuse the current mayor of being pro-Arab. Few would imagine him launching a “charm offensive” toward the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. In fact, he has gained infamy among the Arab sector for seeking to demolish illegal homes.
Though Barkat insists that he has ordered the destruction of 139 illegal Jewish homes compared to only 39 Palestinian ones since 2010, his attempts to soothe Arab resentment at watching their homes destroyed have not worked.
One friction point in the city is the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, southeast of the Old City. Barkat’s plan to expand a major archaeological site and tourist attraction on the edge of the neighborhood has led to protest from Arab residents.
As if adding salt to a wound, when asked what his favorite part of Jerusalem is, the mayor replies unhesitatingly: the City of David, which happens to be on a ridge just west of Silwan and the site of a controversial archaeological park managed by a rightwing group that also funds the purchase of property in East Jerusalem for exclusive Jewish habitation.
Another way Barkat and Kollek differ has been the way they monitor the city in person: Kollek began his day making unannounced visits to neighborhoods to check what pothole or street lamp needed repair.
Barkat spends a few early mornings a week jogging the five kilometers from his home to his office, usually with one group or another tagging along. Like Kollek, he descends on neighborhoods, usually attending preplanned events – evidence, say his detractors, that Barkat lacks Kollek’s spontaneity and ability to supervise in a truly hands-on manner.
Insisting that he treats the city’s Jews and Arabs with evenhandedness, Nir Barkat is all too aware that Jerusalem’s Arab residents are his most prominent foes. But he refuses to discuss the city as if it were divided. He takes for granted that the more prosperous the Palestinian Jerusalemites become, the less violent the city will be.
Even sharper contrasts can be drawn between Barkat and two other previous Jerusalem mayors: Uri Lupolianski and Ehud Olmert, both indicted on corruption charges after leaving office. All that Barkat will say of those indictments is that the inevitable slippage in public trust makes his job that much harder.
But perhaps with those indictments in mind, Barak frequently employs the word “professionalism” to describe what he has brought to the Holy City. He seems to be suggesting that professionals do not take bribes.
For a city under the increasing influence of the ultra-Orthodox community, Barkat’s rise in city politics seems inexplicable. A computer science major at the Hebrew University, a venture capitalist who did not enter political life until he was 44 years old, he regards his business career as a major reason for his political achievements.
After serving as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces from 1979 to 1983, Barkat began a career in high tech. In 1988 he founded BRM, a highly successful firm specializing in anti-virus software. After the California-based Symantec bought BRM’s pioneering anti-virus and backup technology in 1993, Barkat’s BRM made several canny early stage technology investments that included Checkpoint Technologies and BackWeb Technologies.
 After making millions as a computer entrepreneur, he became a philanthropist, believing that he could solve the city’s problems by distributing computers to city schools and teaching school principals how to exploit computers for educational purposes.
It was a noble strategy but he soon realized that such an approach, however generous on his part, did not pack enough wallop.
“Philanthropy,” he notes, “is not highly leveraged. I realized that municipal government would have to lead the change.”
Both he and his wife Beverly concluded that he had to run for mayor. Dining out one evening, he told her, “Uh-oh, we are both doomed. We are going to devote our lives to the municipality.” Barkat was convinced that he was singularly qualified to strengthen the city’s economic life. Notifying his business partners a few months later that he was retiring from business to enter politics, he found them pleased for him, but worried what his absence would do to their thriving business. Now, two decades later, it is clear that they need not have worried.
Barkat wants to run the city as if it were a corporation. What Jerusalem needed, the mayor seemed to indicate, was not a Teddy Kollek, who viewed every pothole in East Jerusalem as a political tinderbox. It required an efficiency expert, an investment wizard, and an entrepreneur brimming with ideas – all wrapped into one central figure.
To be sure, Jerusalem would only benefit from a hands-on leader – like Kollek, Barkat views himself as a micro-manager.
But Barkat clearly believes that the city requires someone who shows up for work in a suit and tie, like the one he is wearing today, reflecting and radiating confidence in his efficiency and managerial expertise.
Taking pride in his efficiency, Barkat contends that 90 percent – clearly a very high figure – of the 750,000 complaints that residents file each year with the municipality are resolved in a timely fashion. He takes the grievances in stride: “Everyone complains. It’s the national sport to complain.”
Economic growth – his core policy for Jerusalem – Barkat argues, should halt Jewish emigration from the city: A more prosper-ous Jerusalem will entice Israelis to Jerusalem, he insists. Such growth will also make the city even more attractive to tourists.
Though 3.5 billion people around the world are mesmerized by what Jerusalem represents as the hub of three major religions, only 3.5 million tourists now visit the city each year. Although a healthy improvement over the two million tourists who arrived the year before he took office, Barkat’s goal is to increase that figure to 10 million. To accomplish that vision, the mayor has initiated and expanded all sorts of projects, including a series of cultural and sporting events and the construction of a new 10,000 seat multi-purpose stadium that will be the city’s largest indoor space.
Building Jerusalem beyond the scope of Teddy Kollek’s dreams, Barkat thinks of the late mayor – whose governing style and policies differed markedly from his – as a role model. His other role model is his father, Zalman, a former Hebrew University physics professor. “Naturally, I think of taking a few of Teddy’s visions for the city of Jerusalem,” says the mayor.
A key Kollek vision that Barkat has adopted relates to the way the city government is organized. Barkat has breathed new life into the Kollek-initiated 25 community councils that languished between 1993 and 2008 and he has created eight municipal boroughs. The revamped councils and the newly-formed boroughs have led, says Barkat, to better communication between municipal officials and residents, making for better decisions. “I strongly believe in getting the public engaged in decision-making,” he says.
Jerusalem, all agree, is a special city. Ask Teddy Kollek what is special about Jerusalem and he replied that the Holy City was the one essential element in Jewish history, Judaism’s heart. But ask Nir Barkat the same question, and he breaks into a sarcastic smile, appearing to scoff at the naïveté of the query, his body language suggesting that a mayor of Jerusalem does not need to explain his city’s vast significance: “It’s Jerusalem. Everyone knows what this city means.”
Given the city’s fragmented nature and Barkat’s Israeli nationalism, he looms as a divisive figure in the same way that all mayors of Jerusalem seem to have been. But the breath-of-fresh-air vitality Nir Barkat has brought to Jerusalem’s economic and cultural life makes him a seemingly strong candidate for national office down the road.
Barkat, however, believes that his political career will be concentrated on Jerusalem for at least one more five-year term as mayor, taking him to 2018.