Corridors of Power: Uncommon Allies

How did Nir Barkat and legal adviser Yossi Havilio go from being united in their opposition to the former mayor to being divided over almost everything?

311_Yossi Havilio (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Yossi Havilio
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio announced his resignation. Following a highly publicized fight between Havilio and Mayor Nir Barkat on various issues, Havilio, who admitted in closed circles that his solitary struggle in the face of a silent coalition was the main reason behind his decision, finally decided to put an end to what many at Kikar Safra considered nothing less than a crusade. In fact, he and Barkat disagreed on almost everything: illegal Jewish construction in east Jerusalem (Beit Yehonatan); large budgets for semi-private haredi education and handing over public buildings to the religious and haredi school system. Havilio would publish rules to forbid such activities, and the mayor would hire a private attorney who would find a way to legalize them.
“Without the support of the council, it was only a matter of time until Havilio resigned,” commented former deputy mayor Shlomo Attias (Shas).
As the popular saying goes, “There are no friends in politics.” Indeed. For years, during former mayor Uri Lupolianski’s term, a group of city council members from the opposition used to consult Havilio. They would meet at a coffee shop. Among the city council members who listened with rapt attention to Havilio’s words on how to protect the law against politicians was current mayor and then head of the opposition, Nir Barkat. He quickly became a shield for Havilio against Lupolianski’s repeated attempts to get rid of him and gave the rest of the city council an impressive lesson in courage, dedication to law and justice and was a shining example of how a politician could still be a clean and honest person.
“I think that today marks a low ebb in the history of this city council, and for the whole administration this is indeed a dark day. We have two different paths ahead of us, and we have to choose between them: either running this city without any limit to power or following the legal adviser’s counsel, even when you, the mayor, don’t agree with it.”
More than four years have passed since Barkat made that speech on June 14, 2006, at the city council meeting at which Lupolianski tried – and failed – to fire Havilio. Time and again during Lupolianski’s term, Barkat stood firmly at Havilio’s side, declaring that a city’s legal adviser is not to be confused with a private attorney. He dragged Lupolianski to court and won his case, forcing the mayor to stop using outside attorneys to bypass Havilio’s legal rules, ready to spend his own money to protect the law and prevent any form of corruption.
LET’S SAY it loud and clear: Nir Barkat is not corrupt. He is dedicated to this city as no one has been since Teddy Kollek. He means well, and he works hard. There have already been signs of improvement – in education (canceling of registration areas, opening new schools, upgrading teachers, etc.); in culture (doubling the budget, completely changing the nature of local events in less than two years); and even the opening of the Mamilla parking lot on Shabbat has become a reality, and the violent haredi demonstrations have almost ceased.
Only a after a full term will we be able to truly evaluate Barkat’s achievements. However, his 180-degree change in attitude toward Havilio is difficult to understand. True, the view is different from the mayor’s office than from the opposition benches. But still, Havilio is the same Havilio: a man who is totally dedicated to the strict requirements of the law, blind to any other consideration. And the fact that he has managed to raise the ire of both sides – the Left and the Right – on the issue of demolishing homes proves his impartiality.
Yet it seems that Barkat has failed to internalize that, well intentioned though he may be, including legitimate concern about the needs of his haredi partners in the coalition, there is no reason to turn Havilio into public enemy No. 1.
So last week, based on inside information that a letter of dismissal was on its way to him from the mayor’s office, Havilio quickly announced his resignation. Thus by avoiding adding to his resumé an embarrassing dismissal, while at the same time receiving the Quality of Governance award after 10 years of loyal but difficult service to the city, Havilio is stepping down from Kikar Safra with his head held high.
The question that remains is this: Is Jerusalem worthy of a legal adviser who will be accountable only to the law, disregarding any political interests?
Havilio will continue to perform his function until March 7, and then he will be on leave until the end of June. A spokesman for Barkat announced that the public tender to find a new legal adviser will be released soon.