Ze’ev Elkin was teaching at Hebrew University when the Kadima Party was looking for a kippa-wearing settler who spoke Russian to run on the party’s Knesset slate in 2006.
A dozen years later, Elkin is among the most successful politicians in Israeli politics, due to his ability to negotiate behind the scenes and obtain whatever he and those who sent him are seeking.
Elkin successfully transitioned from Kadima, which sought territorial compromise, to the far Right of the Likud. But all along he remained consistent in his goals of preparing for demographic threats and maintaining the Jewish majority in Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular.
That was his goal when, in his current post as Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, he proposed cutting off Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem beyond the security barrier from the Jerusalem Municipality.
The plan is currently being considered by the National Security Council and will soon be brought to the cabinet.
That remains Elkin’s goal, now that he is running in the October 30 election for Jerusalem mayor. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
at the Knesset, Elkin exclusively outlined plans for keeping Jerusalem Jewish and fixing problems looming for the city that he believes must be dealt with immediately.
“THE STRUGGLE for demographics in Jerusalem has some weapons that are exclusive to the mayor of the city,” Elkin said. “The main reason people are leaving the city is the price of housing. This harms Jerusalem’s Jewish majority, and it also results in the aging of the city.”
Elkin explained that Jerusalem requires 4,000 apartments to be built annually to maintain natural growth. But for the past decade, only 2,000 a year have been built.
Because only half of what is planned gets built, Elkin believes there must be 100,000 apartments planned immediately to have twice as much planned as what is needed, plus what was needed over the past decade but was never built.
“The planning must start immediately,” he said. “We need a different approach.”
Mayor Nir Barkat, who supports Elkin’s candidacy, focused on urban renewal, building inside the city’s neighborhoods and allowing construction of taller buildings.
Elkin wants to build in existing neighborhoods such as Har Homa, Ramat Shlomo and Pisgat Ze’ev, where he rents an apartment. But he also wants to build new neighborhoods, including in areas where environmental groups would protest construction, such as Mitzpe Naftoah and Reches Lavan in the Jerusalem Hills.
“Building in green areas is often the lesser of evils,” Elkin said. “I wouldn’t implement the entire Safdie Plan [which called for mass construction in the Jerusalem Hills]. We will need to find the right balance. You can’t have everything.”
Elkin said building new neighborhoods would prevent the cultural clashes caused by haredim (ultra-Orthodox) moving into what were previously secular neighborhoods. As a Hebrew University student, he saw that happen to the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood and the Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood, where his parents moved from Ukraine, and now he sees the disputes in the secular neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel.
“Haredim would rather have their own neighborhoods and not have to fight that fight to take over an existing neighborhood,” Elkin said.
Elkin was the first mayoral candidate to come out against the haredi demand to close entertainment areas in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. He intends to continue some but not all of the festivals in the city that Barkat began and the haredim oppose.
“These festivals changed Jerusalem’s image, and I’ll continue that,” he said. “But residents have complained about closing down the city for diplomatic reasons, security concerns, and also for events. The events also make it harder to keep the city clean.”
At the Environmental Protection Ministry, which he runs together with the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, Elkin is in charge of garbage removal and has gained expertise on the mundane topic that could help him run the city.
“If I reach the conclusion to do less culture to keep the city cleaner, I will, because changing Jerusalem’s image already happened,” he said.
“It’s too easy to say I will do everything. Every candidate does that. But I know the truth from my work that there must be prioritizing.”
ELKIN’S JERUSALEM Affairs Ministry has a paltry budget, but he said he used it to lobby for some NIS 4 billion for the city from other ministries.
He did that behind the scenes, while Barkat used a high-profile campaign against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, which at its low point included surrounding Kahlon’s office with garbage.
“I know how to get money,” Elkin said. “I won’t criticize Nir, but I know how to work quietly. There is no need to fight if you have deterrence.”
Barkat has offered Elkin the option of running under the banner of his Jerusalem Will Succeed party, which would help alleviate the costs of the campaign. Elkin tried unsuccessfully to obtain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support, which could have given him funding from the Likud.
Elkin said he still hopes to receive that funding. But he will not bear a grudge if the money does not end up coming through.
“The prime minister has many considerations,” Elkin said. “I have worked closely enough with him over the years to understand the complexity and pressures and to know there are some factors I don’t even know of. I decided to run after a positive meeting with him, understanding that the Likud might not back me.”
THOSE CONNECTIONS to Netanyahu and his ability to obtain funding could be used to help Jerusalem. But Elkin would need a lot of help to solve the problems of the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
“In east Jerusalem, the problem is [Israel] not exercising [its] sovereignty and a lack of development,” Elkin explained. “Budget deficits are caused by a system of property taxes that doesn’t make sense. You make money from businesses, not residents. Because there are not enough businesses in Arab neighborhoods, the expenditures aren’t met by income. This creates a builtin bug.”
Elkin said that where he is living in Pisgat Ze’ev, the mall has many Arab clients who would prefer to go to a shopping center in the nearby Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina, if it had one.
“If they had a mall, there would be less tension, they would have more employment, and their mall would probably have prices that are cheaper,” he said. “We need there to be enough businesses in east Jerusalem to support east Jerusalem. It is more than just a burden. It’s a ticking time bomb.
He noted that in the wave of terrorist attacks of 2015, half the attacks came from the eastern part of the city, which had not happened in previous waves of violence. He blamed the upswing on the Palestinian Authority curriculum taught in east Jerusalem schools.
On Jerusalem Day last month, the cabinet passed a series of bills aimed at strengthening the capital. One of them was to give incentives to Arab schools in east Jerusalem to teach the Israeli curriculum.
“There have been 20 years of PA incitement in schools that get funding from the Israeli government,” Elkin lamented. “In Bnei Brak, schools like that are closed down. Those [east Jerusalem] schools don’t result in Arab pupils knowing Hebrew and being able to work. We need to change the situation. If we don’t fix it now, there will soon be a serious problem.”
Elkin said the planning in east Jerusalem must be organized, but acknowledged that it could take time.
“Problems like that can’t be solved with aspirin,” he said.
“In the past they just gave aspirin and expected the problem to go away. There must be sovereignty and governance, and the residents must be willing to accept it. Much of the Arab population wants to live normally, not fight. If we succeed, the entire city will benefit.”