Master planning

Is anyone in charge at city hall, or do changes to important issues just happen by themselves?

Master plans are more than just about constructing and planning programs for cities. They can also be synonymous with a sophisticated back-stage arrangement. That's what is apparently happening at the moment as we try to survive the heat wave. The new master plan for Jerusalem, an initiative first launched in former mayor Ehud Olmert's days, has recently run into some logistical problems. Upon taking office, Mayor Nir Barkat requested a final review of the plan, claiming that he was entitled to add his own vision of the city's future, which - to put it mildly - is different from that of his predecessors. Barkat introduced several changes to the plan to fit his vision on tourism development, environmental issues, affordable housing for young residents and students, and housing solutions for the city's Arab residents. When the revised plan was ready, a detailed press release was issued, including all the new additions and changes, and the updated master plan was sent for approval to the District Construction and Planning Committee at the Interior Ministry. There are several different versions as to what happened during the time the master plan was revised. According to city councillors representing parties on the right wing of the coalition at Kikar Safra, some left-wing associations managed to include what the right-wingers regard as too much planning for the benefit of the Arab residents. Councillors from the opposite side of the political map said that the changes were merely an attempt to do some justice to the city's Arab population, who for years have suffered from a lack of housing solutions and building permits and, at the same time, have been on the wrong end of numerous demolition orders. The bottom line is that the revised master plan was stopped on the way to the district committee debates and was eventually rejected until some major amendments were included. Shas city councillors Eli Simhayoff and Shlomi Attias, as well as their peers from Habayit Hayehudi, led by Deputy Mayor David Hadari, found their way to Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai, who is also from Shas, and managed to convince him that the revised master plan was much too pro-Palestinian and had to be vetoed or revised again. The conflicting accounts of what happened to the plan on the way from Kikar Safra to the Interior Ministry can be explained by the simple fact that nobody at the municipality can say exactly who introduced the "exaggerated improvements" for Arab residents. The question is how can an official master plan for the city go though major changes without anyone's being able to pinpoint who introduced those changes? Did aliens descend on Kikar Safra? Did someone sneak into city hall and change the draft? Is somebody - at Kikar Safra or elsewhere - not telling the complete truth? Or are we all simply suffering from a heat wave that has affected our intellectual capacities? One thing is sure: Yishai was persuaded and ordered the committee - though some experts argue that he has no such prerogative - to freeze the debates on it and to return it to the sender for a "more appropriate handling" of the issue of construction in east Jerusalem for Arab residents versus Jews. All this comes at a very delicate political moment. The US administration has recently requested that Israel refrain from any Jewish construction in post-1967 areas in Jerusalem, causing the prime minister to reply in favor of Jewish sovereignty in the capital, soon backed by the mayor, regarding the situation in the city, in which Arab residents are free to dwell in any neighborhood without encountering any problems or limitation. In point of fact, Arab residents do live in Jewish neighborhoods, such as French Hill and Pisgat Ze'ev. Regarding the "no problem" issue, perhaps a closer look at the self-administered neighborhood of French Hill's recent declaration might shed a little more light: "About 50 Arab families rent or have purchased flats here, and many more come from Isawiya to buy and enjoy other facilities here, and the Jewish residents suffer from the noise they make until late at night, and there are some cases of harassment of Jewish girls. But there's nothing I can do about it for fear that I would be accused of racism," explained Yochanan Blucher, chairman of the local administration, to a Hebrew local newspaper last week. But there's more. According to a source at Kikar Safra, Yishai recently proposed a deal to the mayor. In return for an approval of the changes to the master plan, Yishai, who is among other things responsible for the budgets of the city councils, promised he would do his best to increase the capital grant which had recently been cut by the Treasury. Did anyone say master plan?