Barkat promises to be mayor of all J'lem residents

Capital's new mayor says he is considering alternatives to city's light rail project.

Secular businessman Nir Barkat was elected Tuesday as the next mayor of Jerusalem, handily defeating his haredi opponent and receiving a mandate for his vision of economic development for the capital. Barkat garnered 52 percent of the vote, compared to 43% for his main rival, MK Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism, according to near-final elections results released early Wednesday. Tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak, who had avidly courted Arab voters, received only 4% of the vote, while Dan Biron of the Green Leaf Party, which seeks to legalize marijuana, received 0.5%. "I stand here and express my thanks for the great honor I have been given to serve as the mayor of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people," Barkat told jubilant supporters as he claimed victory at a pre-dawn celebration at a modest Jerusalem hotel. "Tonight, Jerusalem has won." Barkat, a former paratroops officer, promised to be a mayor for "all of Jerusalem's residents," including the city's large haredi and Arab populations. By law, he will take office within 21 days, a city spokeswoman said. The race, which had been expected to be much closer, also left Barkat able to control the 31-member city council without having to form a coalition with any of the haredi parties. Still, the mayor-elect said they should be part of his coalition. The votes of soldiers who voted outside the city had not yet been tallied, with final election results to be released at a Thursday morning press conference at city hall. In the city council, the secular and modern Orthodox parties gained control of 18 of the 31 seats, in a dramatic turnaround from the haredi-run city hall of the last five years, according to the near-final results. Porush's United Torah Judaism remains the largest party on the council with eight seats, followed by Barkat's party with six seats and Shas with five. A new joint list of secular and traditional twenty- and thirty-something Jerusalemites called Wake up Jerusalem-Yerushalmim got at least two seats, while two independent parties got one seat each. The National Union-National Religious Party garnered three seats, as did a local offshoot of Avidgor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, while Meretz received two mandates. The Likud won only one seat on the council, while Gaydamak's party failed to win any. For the second municipal election in a row, the once-dominant Labor Party did not get into the city council at all. For the second straight day, Barkat headed to the Western Wall on Wednesday, then convened an evening press conference at the King David Hotel, where he outlined his vision for the capital. Barkat told reporters he would weigh "preferable alternatives" to the repeatedly-delayed light rail project in the city, which he defined as "megalomanic," including state-of-the-art buses to run where the track has already been laid. He also reaffirmed his commitment to supporting housing projects for young Jews in east Jerusalem, which has earned him the scorn of the Left. "United Jerusalem is a win-win situation," he said during his English briefing to the foreign press. "There is no good example of a split city in the world, especially if you want the city to become a world tourism site." Barkat added that he saw nothing wrong with building for Jewish couples by expanding existing east Jerusalem neighborhoods. He said such plans could be carried out, not at the expense of building for and serving the city's 250,000 Arabs, whom he said deserved far vastly improved municipal services. The victory represented a remarkable comeback for the self-made hi-tech millionaire, who lost the mayoral elections five years ago and went on to serve as opposition leader in the haredi-run municipality. He reaffirmed Wednesday that he would contribute his roughly NIS 40,000 monthly city salary to a worthy Jerusalem organization. About 42% of eligible voters cast their ballot in Jerusalem, slightly more than the 38% who voted in 2003, according to the near-final figures. The figures are artificially low since they include Arab Jerusalemites, the vast majority of whom boycott municipal elections. Both Porush and outgoing Mayor Uri Lupolianski phoned Barkat on Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory. Lupolianski will return to Yad Sarah, a medical charity that is the largest voluntary organization in the country, while MK Porush, his colleague in United Torah Judaism, is expected to return to the Knesset.•