On the fast track

Spend a few hours with Nir Barkat, and his social and political agendas begin to emerge.

barkat 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barkat 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Wednesday 6 p.m., Kikar Safra, Building 1, the main entrance. I am on my way to meet Mayor Nir Barkat. At the entrance to his chambers on the sixth floor, the guard smiles vacantly and pushes the button that opens the door. The first impression is of a beehive: a bunch of busy people scurrying from one place to another, all hanging onto cell phones, running from one computer monitor to the next in a highly active - though amiable - atmosphere. After a second look, I recognize some of them and notice that they all have something in common: they are young, slim and smiling. There is a large majority of crocheted kippa-wearers among the men, and there are more women than usual in such a high-powered place. In some ways, the mayor's chambers still look like Barkat's headquarters during the campaign: very active yet relaxed and friendly. They are preparing for Barkat's first trip to the US as mayor of Jerusalem. His foreign press assistant, Stephan Miller, is perhaps the only one who's a little tense - after all, there's quite a lot on his young shoulders. After a few minutes Evyatar Elad, Barkat's personal spokesman, comes out of the private chambers and announces that the boss will be available in just a few more minutes. After a short while, chief of staff Michal Shalem (who will accompany Barkat to the US) steps out from the chamber and I am invited in. Barkat, in a blue shirt, no tie, his jacket thrown on the back of his armchair, is listening to a briefing on traffic and public transportation, surrounded by maps, computer screens and two female assistants. He stands up from his desk to welcome me. I watch him carefully as he follows the briefing, his jaw slightly clenched. The mayor seems to be familiar with the details of the issues, which concern public transportation problems in and around Beit Hakerem, his neighborhood, for which he had promised to find a solution. Barkat is on top of things, expecting no less from his people. During the time I spent with the mayor, I noted that his young assistants have adopted many of the boss's expressions, such as "fakakt" ("crummy") and - conversely - "a win-win situation." When the briefing is over, Barkat checks on a few items presented by Hadas, another assistant, and gets ready to leave the municipality building. On the agenda for that evening are three events. The first is the opening of the neighborhood local administrations and community centers, held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Then a welcoming speech at the conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism at the YMCA and ending with an entertainment evening at the Jerusalem Theater for the female employees of the municipality to celebrate International Women's Day. A quick elevator ride and we reach Barkat's jeep. (The mayor has chosen to receive only a nominal NIS 1 salary a year. He has also refused to purchase a special car paid for by the taxpayers and uses his own car.) The mayor's bodyguard sits in front beside the driver, and I'm invited to share the middle seat next to the mayor. Elad and Miller occupy the back seat. Upon arriving at the JICC, Barkat is warmly welcomed by a group of women. All along the way to the head table, the mayor smiles, shakes hands and embraces a lot of people, who seem genuinely happy to see him. There is no doubt that Barkat, the millionaire, the man who endured for over five years the disdain and the criticism of the former municipality administration and elected members (including, ironically, some of his major coalition members), the man who didn't really need all that burden, enjoys the adulation of the people around him. As for the reasons that brought him here, Barkat has often said that he has a sense of mission and that for him, there is no question about the importance of Jerusalem in his vision. THE SPEECH at the community centers (an awards ceremony for the employees) is very important for Barkat. He is determined to express his opposition to institutions leaving the city. Recently, talks regarding such a decision by the Hevrat Hamatnasim (national company for community centers) has worried him. Since the CEO, Avi Armoni, is at the ceremony, Barkat decides to find a way to convey his view. He does and, to his great delight, receives resounding applause. After listening to a few speeches, including Armoni's response to his challenge, Barkat gives a sign and the little group leaves the place, en route for the next event. The conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism is held at the YMCA. Barkat's speech was applauded, but inside sources expressed some criticisms - from lacking any Jewish references to the embarrassing feeling that the mayor was expecting them to make a pledge (he wasn't, but some interpreted his words that way). From the YMCA, the silver jeep takes us to the Jerusalem Theater to meet the chairman of the municipal employees' committee, Zion Dahan. Perhaps the only person at Kikar Safra who could seriously disrupt Barkat's plans, Dahan seems almost tame. The two seem like old buddies and not like a mayor and a union leader whose job is to make his life difficult. They enter the concert hall, but not before Barkat greets employees, who obviously adore the fact that they can hug the mayor and call him "Nir." After his short speech, the third given in less than two hours, Barkat waves to the 800 female employees and steps out. The adrenaline is still very high, the satisfaction in his eyes is obvious. Still, it must be said that the three speeches harped too much on the idea of partnership - whether in donations or other contribution. And while Barkat certainly sounds more interesting than the two former mayors, he still lacks some edifying rhetoric, especially these days when the "Obama effect" has become a major yardstick. During that evening, Barkat is very careful to avoid referring to his position as opposition leader before the elections. Some of those who rushed to shake his hand had been among his fiercest opponents just a few months ago. Whether it is part of his character or the result of specific advice given by a consultant, Barkat smiles at everybody around and seems to have totally forgotten past criticisms. In a previous conversation, he did say that he was "capable of acting with the generosity of the winner." After all that, Barkat rushes to a meeting at his home in Beit Hakerem, where I am not invited. I ask for additional time with him, and we agree to meet at his office on Friday morning. ON FRIDAY morning I arrive at Kikar Safra before 8 a.m. as requested. Within a few minutes Barkat and the young team arrive. At least twice a week the mayor jogs from home to Kikar Safra. Although he didn't that particular morning, he looks like a man for whom sports is a major part of his daily life. The meeting is a closed one. The only thing I am permitted to disclose is that it is connected to an ambitious development plan in the Old City as part of Barkat's master plan to increase the number of tourists to Jerusalem, offering at the same time some solutions to several acute problems facing Arab residents. The participants are some of the major key personalities in the professional high rank at the municipality, some of them veterans in their positions. Of the seven participants, only one is an elected official, one of Barkat's deputies - the only one who feels free enough to argue on some issues. But basically, these high-ranking officials trust him and seem eager to please him. Barkat listens to them carefully but quickly shows that he has his own opinion. It is clear that what he expects are ways and suggestions to support his proposal. Phrases such as "go with me" and "pay attention to what I say" are uttered time and again. Within 10 minutes it is clear they are with him. Then he stops everything and says, "Listen to this. I mean it and I will repeat it again and again: This is my major project for this term. My whole time here will succeed or fail on this, meaning I am asking you all to think big. That is what I expect from you - nothing less." There's a moment of silence following Barkat's words, and then slowly a sense of calm spreads over the room. The discussion resumes, no more remarks or objections - the situation becomes clear for all: there's a plan. Their job is to make it happen. Barkat moves on. There are some other issues, and time is short. Those who have finished their business at the meeting leave, wishing him success on his trip. The two who remain begin to work on the next items. Again, Barkat doesn't waste time. Although he is very polite, it is clear that people are requested to work, not to talk (unless they have something important to say). The whole atmosphere is a very matter-of-fact: "we're talking business here." After that, another meeting is scheduled. This time, a very delicate issue related to the haredi-secular confrontation in Kiryat Hayovel will be discussed. Barkat has a plan. He is convinced it is a winning card. "I work differently than others. When I am confronted with a problem, instead of concentrating on it and wasting time trying to change people's minds and positions, I offer them a larger solution, a totally different point of view, one that will offer them much more to achieve than their specific problem. And it works." What happens if it doesn't? For the moment, this option is out of the question. The adrenaline, the work on a team, the high energy - it all gives Barkat and his team the feeling that nothing is impossible. After the meeting, Barkat allows himself to be more relaxed and invites me to the large terrace outside his office. He already has many plans in mind: parking issues (he says he has a detailed plan to solve the Carta parking problem), a series of buildings, and housing for art and culture in the city center. "We're just beginning," he says. "There's so much to do. But we've started. People feel we're working, we're going forward." Barkat goes home late that afternoon, where another meeting awaits him. Additional ones will take place on Saturday evening. And on Monday at dawn he will be on the plane for a 10-day coast-to-coast trip in the US. He knows that the demolition of homes in east Jerusalem, a very delicate issue, might be added to his agenda. But he still sounds very confident in his ability to explain what is at stake and perhaps even to convince people that his master plan will present satisfactory solutions for all parties.