New benchmarks

With three new opposition members, things are finally getting heated at the city council.

kikar safra 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kikar safra 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Following the decision of three Meretz party members – Pepe Alalu, Meir Margalit and Laura Wharton – to vote against Mayor Nir Barkat’s plan for the Gan Hemelech sector of Silwan, the mayor fired the triumvirate immediately. As a result, city hall now has a four-member opposition. At the monthly city council meeting on Thursday evening, Alalu – deputy mayor until four hours earlier – discovered that the employees of the municipality had already moved his name to the opposition benches of the round table. Alalu, with a kind of bravado, thanked Mayor Barkat and added that he felt, after almost two years as part of the mainstream consensus, like he was “back to my younger days as a crusader for peace and democracy.”
After a relatively long period without too many exciting events, some of the city council members admitted that it was almost like the good old days – at least there was some intense drama with all the accoutrements: ardent speeches, passionate declarations, including some very nondiplomatic invectives, and even police intervention in the municipal meeting hall (at the request of Barkat to escort out opposition leader Meir Turgeman, who refused to stop his intervention long after his time had elapsed). As already published at length in the media, the Meretz members had to leave the coalition benches, following chairman Alalu’s decision to vote against Barkat’s plan for Gan Hamelech in Silwan. The fact is that nobody at city hall was really surprised to see the end of the rather unusual partnership between the representatives of the left wing in city hall and the right-wing mayor.
“Pepe Alalu is an oppositionist at heart,” said city council member Eli Simhayof (Shas) earlier this week. Simhayof apparently has the best chance to inherit Alalu’s position as deputy mayor, with the accompanying salary of approximately NIS 40,000. “I was sure it was just a matter of time until he found his way out of the coalition.”
So the three members of the Meretz party in the capital are now back to the position they had held for almost 20 years – in the opposition. From now on, the one-man opposition on the city council, represented by Turgeman, is getting substantial support from three people highly experienced in the art of warring opposition. Whether Turgeman is really happy about it or is already beginning to feel anxious about eventually being overshadowed by his new partners is yet to be determined. For the moment, the welcome is loud and clear, and time will tell.
IT IS no secret that there are other members in Barkat’s coalition who are not happy about their situation, especially with what they describe as a very strict and rigid atmosphere. Some of them, off the record of course, call it “a lack of democracy.” But so far, there are no signs that any of them will be leaving the warm bosom of the coalition anytime soon, including those who are not deputies and thus do not receive a salary.
The question now is how did it happen that a group of representatives, who individually and together are closer to the political positions of the radical left in the country, found themselves in the midst of a right-wing religious Zionist coalition? And, to boot, under the leadership of a mayor who has never hidden his right-wing views and political positions. It is public knowledge that Barkat had been a member of the Likud party for years.
Apart from all kinds of semi-psychological explanations, the dilemma faced by the representatives of the non-haredi parties was the same. Once there is a serious secular candidate for the position of mayor, what should the attitude be of those who want to strengthen the secular population? “Should we automatically support any realistic secular candidate or should we scrutinize this candidate’s political opinions too?” asked Alalu during the 2008 campaign. After considering running for mayor himself, Alalu realized that he didn’t stand a chance and decided, albeit reluctantly, to support Barkat’s candidacy. His fellow members – Meir Margalit and Laura Wharton – were even more dubious as to the chances of this unpredictable new alliance.
“The fear of a haredi candidate, and especially someone like Meir Porush [Barkat’s main opponent in the 2008 election], was so profound that they put aside all their hesitations regarding Barkat’s well-known right-wing positions,” recalled a Meretz activist this week.
Barkat won, Meretz entered the coalition (for the first time since Teddy Kollek’s council in the late 1980s), and Pepe Alalu – the man who likes to remind everyone that Che Guevara is still his hero – stepped, for the first time in his life, into the most mainstream position: deputy mayor in charge of culture.
And the rest is history.
So how does the city council coalition look now? The same, but very different. The three rebels – Alalu, Margalit and Wharton – sit on the opposition side, close to Meir Turgeman, a veteran of the opposition. For those who have been following the city council debates for years, the picture might look like a kind of déjà vu. Indeed, Alalu has promised that he will lead “an active and strong opposition,” but he should bear in mind that even in the glorious days of fierce oppositionists like Ornan Yekutieli and Anat Hoffman, both from Meretz, the results were never anything more than a few juicy headlines in the local press.
The rows of Shas are still shaky. Granted, city council member Eli Simhayof is back from his two-week arrest in connection with the Holyland affair (so far, nothing has been found against him), but former deputy mayor Shlomi Attias left and is now director of the East Jerusalem Development Company, and Shmuel Yitzhaki is still a one-man opposition within his party and thus has no chance of obtaining any official position.
Simhayof is very keen to take over the position left open by Alalu. His chances are good, but as of Monday he still hadn’t received any word from the mayor about it. Simhayof knows that his fiercest competition is Yossi Deitsch (United Torah Judaism), former assistant to MK Meir Porush, who’s made it clear that the best language to use in such cases is mathematics: his party has eight members on the city council, while Shas has only four.
Meanwhile, the price of disloyalty (that is how city council members describe any disagreement with the mayor) has already been paid. Wharton discovered that it took Barkat less than an hour to fire her from the retired residents’ council that she herself 
had created less than a year ago and for which he had personallycongratulated her. As for Alalu’s generous offer to always be ready “tohelp and assist in any case in cultural affairs,” sources close to themayor have already leaked that there is no way the former deputy mayorwill be called upon again.
While Yael Antebi, representative of the residents of Pisgat Ze’ev,resigned a few months ago from her portfolio of traffic andtransportation in the city due to what she described as “lack ofsupport from the mayor,” and though city council member Ofer Berkovitch(and his No. 2 Merav Cohen of Hitorerut B’yerushalayim) are not alwayshappy about Barkat’s decisions, there is no indication that any of themwill follow Alalu out into the cold. What’s more, city councilman HilikBar (from Barkat’s Jerusalem Will Succeed), in charge of the tourismportfolio on the city council and secretary of the Jerusalem districtfor the Labor Party, has officially announced his total support of themayor’s plan in Silwan. That leaves Barkat with a smaller but stillvery firm coalition (26 members instead of 30), at least for themoment.
The next elections are scheduled for November 2013, a very long time inwhich Barkat can run things here in a way that will obliterate therecent events from everybody’s memory, but also time enough for Alaluto implement his plan. “From here on in, I will devote all my time andenergy to two objectives: to make Barkat’s life miserable and tocultivate a candidate to oust him from Kikar Safra.” 
Asked who he had in mind, Alalu answered, “It could even be a haredi. Idon’t see any problem with that.” Considering that Alalu’s slogan forthe last elections was “We have to stop the haredi hegemony inJerusalem,” that might raise some coherence issues.