A satisfied mayor

Uri Lupolianski doesn't claim to be 'enjoying' the job, but he's certainly pleased with the progress he says he's making - and certainly intends to 'finish the job'.

lupoliansky 88 (photo credit: )
lupoliansky 88
(photo credit: )
Uri Lupoliansky doesn't claim to be 'enjoying' the job, but he's certainly pleased with the progress he says he's making - balancing the city's budget, meeting 'strategic goals.' He's also appreciative that the improved security situation of late has enabled the city to thrive and has revived tourism. Addressing very specific issues in this interview - relating to cleanliness, building policy, traffic, education and more - the mayor acknowledges that not all his goals have been achieved. He fully intends, he says, to 'finish the job.' So, how are things going, Mr. Mayor? This is a stressful period: We're preparing the budget and advancing the city strategy. Israel often works ad hoc, with lots of improvisation - but here we have started something that I wasn't certain we would manage to make a success of: After a year, after we had learned the system and stabilized it, we prepared a strategic plan for five years - a plan that includes economic changes, tourism, the internal economics of the municipality, and how the municipality can affect the economy of the city, planning and construction. I must say that, thank God, we're having a fair degree of success with this plan and very few shocks. For example, the municipality's internal economics - to have moved from an annual deficit in the hundreds of millions - we don't talk about this that often. After all, my predecessor holds a senior position. From facing a vast deficit, we reached a budgetary balance last year and hope to maintain that this year too. We've changed emphasis to place a greater stress on providing services. We've made the shift without strikes, quietly, in partnership. Today there are more than 250 hi-tech enterprises in Jerusalem. Four or five years ago 400-500 businesses were closing down a year; this year, hundreds of businesses have opened. There's been a lot of divine assistance. Thank God, the strategic plan is working. We're two years into the five [of the plan]. We want to make improvements everywhere. One of the issues we're working on is improving the appearance of the city - that means cleanliness. We have to clean. But we also have to invest a lot in parks, greenery. But the city is still far from clean. Take Sacher Park, as just one example. It's often filthy. In my opinion, generally, there is certainly an improvement. You spoke to me last year about bringing all kinds of new clean-up equipment. Has that happened? Absolutely - two-thirds have come. There had not been investment in this. There was a deterioration. We had garbage collection vehicles that were being fixed more often than they were working. We allocated almost NIS 30 million immediately and NIS 80m. for the program to purchase the right equipment. I'm not saying we've attained everything we wanted. We've still got two more years of serious work to do. But there has been a vast improvement, and the people do feel it. We've built parks - centers of life. There is no neighborhood where we haven't begun to improve the parks. Sacher Park, too: we've fixed up and added to the tune of more than NIS 2m. We've added cleaning workers. We need to do more about the dogs. Tel Aviv seems to be having more success with this. There is an area in Sacher Park especially for dogs. And we're establishing four more like it in other neighborhoods. We're trying to take the initiative. People also need to be educated about this, and about throwing garbage. Let's talk about construction - about where you are and aren't building, about providing the necessary infrastructure. You've halted the Safdie Plan [for the development of west Jerusalem]. On Safdie, I didn't make some kind of gut decision. I looked into the plan. I'm not saying it's a bad or terrible plan. The big picture is to ensure there is enough housing in the city so that youngsters can live here, so that olim can live here, so that the prices won't be sky high. And for that we need to work on plans within the city. Why? Because everyone has been so busy with a plan for west Jerusalem that relates, maybe, to the year 2025. And meantime, all the other plans were neglected, halted. All the energy was channeled to Safdie. When I looked into it, I saw that, today, we can go ahead with plans for thousands upon thousands of housing units. I said, "Hang on, what are we doing? We're placing all our energy on a plan for 15 or 20 years from now." I realized we could work together with the greens, the various offices and ministries, so I said, "Let's freeze the Safdie plan. Let's come back and check it in a few years, and meanwhile let's focus our energies within the city and get to work." We have plans for more than 50,000 housing units, and with employment areas, commercial areas. And 2,000 to 4,000 of those are planned for this year. We are now coming out with the plan for Givat Hamatos - 2,600 housing units. We're working on a plan for East Talpiot for 600 units. A plan for Ramat Rahel. There was a disproportion between the attention given to Safdie at the expense of these plans. Presumably because it offered larger potential. But these areas are problematic. I'm not saying they may not be worthwhile in the end. But you have to build infrastructure, roads, bridges, tunnels. You need a water line, sewage line, telecommunications. By contrast, within the city, all that exists. But the existing transport infrastructure is not adequate - in Talpiot, to give just one example. That's why we asked to prepare a master plan for Jerusalem transport. There's a team to deal with this. We're not going to introduce a London-style congestion charge. But we are going to establish such good public transport lines that, despite the reluctance, will make it worthwhile for people to travel within the city on public transport. As this infrastructure is being built, as roads are fixed, there's inconvenience. But we're at such an advanced stage. Within two years, it will be possible to move around with great ease and comfort on public transport. We've used a lot of the precedents from elsewhere in the world. Have you seen from other cities that people really are prepared to give up their private transport in sufficient numbers? This was checked in Germany, France, Switzerland. The ease, speed and comfort will be so significant. There's also a social value in having an office manager coming to work together with the clerks. That will be a positive change. It will be so beneficial for the elderly and the handicapped. The bus stations will be completely handicapped accessible. There'll be no step up needed to get onto the buses. I think it will be a great, positive change. At the same time, you're still building more in the Holyland complex. What do you think of it? Is it properly constructed to withstand earthquakes? The building standards are designed to take into account the earthquake threat. Do you think that project adds to the beauty of the city? If you look out at the city from up there, it is beautiful. The building is very good. From below, it is a little imposing. I think it should have been built with a more terraced look. But that's a matter of taste. It is certainly eye-catching. A hill without trees and with that mass of concrete. The completed project will be softer. The original plan has actually been scaled down in my time. Are they not planning some kind of 34-floor tower? They had planned for many more floors. Now they've come down and spread out a little. The people living there are very satisfied. There's also a lot of very costly building going up in the city center - with prices that are sky-high. If you're talking about Mamilla and so on, it is prestige building and Jerusalem needs it. There are a lot of people - mainly, but not only, Jews - who want to live in the holy city. And even if that's not where they live all year round, they want a home here for the festivals and so on. I think it's a need. Are "ghost neighborhoods" not emerging as a consequence? Not at all. Because the phenomenon is not centered in one particular neighborhood. It's spread out, and this is a big city. This city has more than 800,000 people. (Figures released on Jerusalem Day by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies put the figure at 718,900 - 66 percent of whom are Jewish and 34% of whom are Arab - DH.) The State of Israel doesn't know how to cope with this. You could put the whole population of Haifa - men, women and children - on the chairs in the classrooms of our schools in this city, and you'd still have 6,000 spare chairs. The numbers are amazing. We have almost a quarter of a million children here. So let's say there are 2,000 units [that go unoccupied by their owners for much of the year]. In Haifa, that would cause a difficulty. Not in Jerusalem. And those are the numbers - 2,000 units? Less, I think. And I also see it as part of the aliya process: Many of these apartments are not empty. The father comes for the festivals; the son comes on a program for a year; the brother comes. Then the father comes for longer. It's a process that draws them more to Israel. And there's also economic value. I see it overall as a positive phenomenon. In the German Colony, apart from the construction protests that you know about, there is also concern about rezoning in the sidestreets off Emek Refaim, for restaurants and bars and so on. Is this planned? We see the main road as alive, vibrant. The residents know this. We're not turning a residential street into a commercial street. And we're not approving rezoning [on the side streets]. And on Derech Beit Lehem, the concern is that the shops and restaurants will die because the road will become a major thoroughfare [because of major traffic changes on the parallel Derech Hebron]. The aim is to improve the situation. We had intended to take all the bus routes off Derech Beit Lehem. But the people from the two homes for the elderly said it was too far to get to Derech Hebron, where there are designated lanes for public transport. So we are leaving two bus lines. We'll put in a roundabout to make the road a little calmer. All change is scary, but there's no drastic change planned to the way Derech Beit Lehem is now. And we're still discussing it with everyone. You know, there is a cultural mosaic here that is one of the most special in the world. We are the biggest Jewish city [in Israel] with over half a million Jews. The biggest Arab city, with 270,000 Arabs. Not the biggest Christian city, but there are Christians too. And in the end the mosaic produces a certain peace and tranquility and a desire on the part of everyone to get involved. I'm not sure you have that in London or in New York - that degree of involvement in all that is being done for the residents. That's very developed here, for better and for worse. But you certainly do have to listen to everyone to get the right result. In this case, the police and the Transportation Ministry proposed three sets of traffic lights. I suggested the French precedent of a roundabout. It also looks better. At one junction there has to be a traffic light. A very specific education question. Two schools: Reut and TALI Bayit Vagan. I have children in both. Reut is a wonderful school and it gets all the backing in the world. TALI Bayit Vagan is being given very different treatment - pressed to merge with this or that school, to leave its building, not having its building fixed up. There's a sense that this school is being undermined. Parents are being prevented from continuing to part-fund it so that the classes are not too numerous - again, in direct contrast to Reut. What's going on? I can't claim to be absolutely familiar - that's a very specific question. I can say that Reut is successful and is growing and the municipality is helping it. TALI is getting smaller. The Education Ministry bars the municipality from maintaining schools that are too small. Now, because there is also a problem with the physical building there, so they are saying that a more appropriate place should be found. In principle, do you support the TALI mindset? I am in favor. You might ask, "You're Orthodox, so why is that?" Well, I think that there are Jews who keep some commandments, Jews who keep more, Jews who keep less. But a Jew must know his heritage, and then he can make his decisions. Reut and TALI give you that heritage. So they're very important. They teach what Judaism is about. Graduates know what Rosh Hashanah is… So you don't reach a situation like the story that is told of [president] Katzir, who went to the 5th Avenue Synagogue. The sabras have this problem - less in Jerusalem, more in Tel Aviv, in Ramat Hasharon, Haifa. So Katzir goes there and, of course, he's the president, so they call him [to the Torah]. They say, "Efraim ben… [asking for his father's name]. And he [misunderstanding the word "ben" to mean a request for his age rather than for the name of his father] says "76." They say, "No, your father, your father." And he [still not understanding] says, "No, my father has passed away." Now, someone who went to Reut or to TALI would not lack that knowledge. Whether he would keep this or that commandment, that's up to him. But he'd know. Now, in my opinion, there is no place [in Israel] where we stress the various streams of education as much as in Jerusalem. A lot of thought goes into this. A lot of research. Now we've introduced the "Mosaic of Jerusalem" program, giving every child - Orthodox and secular alike - knowledge about Jerusalem, its significance to the Jewish people. This is not for reasons of patriotism. This is a program that gives the child a sense of his roots. So, yes, I do support those schools. And if I had one building to give either to a haredi school or to Reut, I would give it to Reut. Tell us about the problem concerning church-owned holdings and the non-payment of arnona (city taxes). [This came to a head during last week's visit by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the Vatican, but has not been resolved.] We are complaining because there is discrimination. There is a church-owned hotel here in the city. And I have Jewish hotel managers, for instance, asking me how it can be that their competitors can charge lower prices because they don't pay city taxes. All the churches don't pay city taxes. All church-owned institutions don't pay city taxes. They say these are places for pilgrims. It is a problem for the city. Understand, a third of the city center belongs to the churches. I'm not saying that houses of prayer should pay city taxes. But all the other places - restaurants, bars, discos, hotels. What's going on? So we went to the government and said, "You made an agreement with the Vatican [that needs fixing]. Now, everyone understands the sensitivity. But Jerusalem can't live like this. It is missing out on hundreds of millions. In addition, from a business point of view, it is just unfair. I say, fine, "Make a new agreement where the Vatican pays 50 percent. Fine." I'm also not saying that it all has to be paid right away. But there has to be an agreement. I stress, we're not talking abut places of prayer. But we can't have other institutions that don't pay city taxes. They benefit from city lighting, from garbage collection. They're part of the city. This is a difficult problem that I hope will be dealt with. Why is so much money [a reported NIS 1 million] being spent on the matter of firing city attorney Yossi Havilio [who has the support of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and the Movement for the Quality of Government]? [The issue is still in the courts.] This is like someone killing his parents and then seeking mercy from the judge because he's an orphan. This is someone who doesn't function, doesn't do his work, doesn't come to work, doesn't provide a service... and then comes and says "I'm keeping the law, I'm above the law." More than the required two-thirds of council members - there were 25 council members, coalition and opposition - came along and said "It's impossible. The man isn't functioning." Now he initiates a case against the municipality, against a city council decision. What should the municipality do? Shouldn't it protect itself? And then he complains that the city is spending money to hire an attorney to represent it in his case! As the mayor of a capital to the former mayor of a capital, what's your take on Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? He's dreadful, of course - to threaten the destruction of a people, any people? Unthinkable. I don't understand the free world. Especially after World War II, that these kinds of things... I've learned more about Christian theology but I have also learned Islamic theology. And for him to make this cynical use of religion. The Koran does not include this concept of genocide. Catholicism has some discussion of what is permissible to try to encourage someone to convert; in Islam, even that does not exist. To our sorrow, there are many people who cynically abuse religion. We know that even some corrupt [Jews] went there [to Teheran for Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference]. It may be "normal" for such rotten apples to be found on the margins of society. But for someone like Ahmadinejad to be allowed to be at center stage? To speak from the platform of the Iranian parliament about the destruction of a people? It's appalling. Are you enjoying this job? I can't speak in those terms, but I derive satisfaction from the fact that we are meeting our strategic goals, that I've managed to reduce the debt of the city of Jerusalem and reach a balanced budget. I certainly don't take personal credit for the fact that the city is alive, vibrant, the economy is reawakening, tourism is so drastically returning. When we see all that, it is satisfying. But at any moment, new minefields appear. Do you want to keep on doing this? In this country, and especially Jerusalem, every hour is like an eternity. On November 26, 2008, there will be elections. That's two years away. Do you have a demographic vision - a goal in terms of the composition of the population - in this city. [In an address to the Herzliya Conference a year ago, opposition City Council leader Nir Barkat warned that Jerusalem was fast losing its Jewish majority, and had already lost its Zionist majority. He said 46 percent of city residents were Zionists, 20% were haredim and 34% were Arabs.] Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people. Not just Israeli Jews, but the world's Jews. When our parents were scattered all over the world, they prayed to Jerusalem, they broke a glass for Jerusalem when they got married, they invoked Jerusalem when they mourned. And so it must maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority. It must not exclude Jews; it needs Jews to come. All streams of Judaism? Absolutely. And it is happening. There's so much [negative] "folklore" surrounding this city. But anyone living here sees the harmony. Are secular Jews leaving? Factually, no. Overall, in the "golden era" of [mayor] Teddy Kollek, 18,000-20,000 people left the city, mainly to the nearby areas like Ma'aleh Adumim. It wasn't that they fled. In Ehud Olmert's time, that number fell, to 12,000-15,000. Today, that number has come down so much further - because the city is thriving. We're talking about a [net outflow] of 4,000... (The trend long predates Lupolianski's era. Mainly citing better job prospects and cheaper housing as reasons to leave, 18,100 Jewish residents moved out of the city in 2004, up from 13,300 the year before, in the largest outflow since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. This was offset by an influx of 11,400 Jews, for a net outflow of 6,700. The net outflow in 2005 was a less dramatic 5,800. The Institute does not yet have figures for 2006. The 2005 figures show Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and Beit Shemesh as the three leading areas from which new residents arrived in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh and Ma'aleh Adumim as the three leading areas to which Jerusalemites departed. Close analysis of some of these statistics - such as the fact that over 1,000 more Jerusalemites left for Tel Aviv than arrived from that city, or that 700 more left for Ma'aleh Adumim than arrived from there - highlights the sense of an overall outflow of non-haredi Jewish Jerusalemites - DH.) Overall, there's been a revolution [in the city of late]. We were all closed up in our homes [at the height of the terror wave]. We were all scared to spend time out on the streets. Now it's Hanukka. The city is putting on 72 events. And then there are all the private initiatives. There are amazing things for all streams - for haredim, for the secular, for Christians. Have you been in the city this week. It's a city of lights! A carpet of light. Everything is on the up, everything is running. Put all that together, along with a balanced budget and better service to the public. Is all the work done? No. But you asked, am I running again for mayor. I want to finish the job. I hope I'll finish the job. And then I won't have to... I don't see this as a profession. I don't think someone should be a mayor for 20 years. I know where I came from. I know where I'm going. For now, I am serving this city with faith and great satisfaction.