Interview: It's business, but it's personal too

Interview Its business

barkat with david h 248.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
barkat with david h 248.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Nir Barkat may have left the business world for a life in politics in 2002, but the fourth mayor of unified Jerusalem is still a businessman. Talk of CEOs, entrepreneurship and business management permeated the Jerusalem Great Synagogue as 1,500 English-speaking Jerusalemites heard Barkat dialogue with Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Horovitz as part of the synagogue's monthly lecture series. "I'm a business entrepreneur," Barkat said, "and I realized that the critical fact of developing the city of Jerusalem is building our economy. For that, I knew that I could do as good a job as anybody else because of my business orientation." The crowd had come to hear about the completion of his first year in office, and left with the knowledge that the mayor plans to serve either two or three terms. "I think that after 10 to 15 years, you have to let the new, young people take over. I believe that to make a difference, you need two terms minimum. And then we'll see." But before Barkat spoke about the future, he recounted his past. On his years as a soldier: Usually people don't ask, and I don't talk about it. This was in 1980, before the Lebanon War, just beyond the border. It was during an era when we went in and out of Lebanon. We went many, many times, and one of those times there was a raid when we blew up about seven houses. We had face-to-face combat with some of the terrorists who lived there. And in that fight, some of our friends were shot. I had a face-to-face grenade fight with one of the terrorists. Unfortunately, I was shot from one meter away, but I recovered after one month. My company commander was right next to me, and he was killed. One month after that, I returned to my company. Later, I became a company commander, and during the whole Lebanon War I was a company commander. So I had extensive experience in the army; I served six years. And when I finished the army, I served as a company commander in a reserve unit in the paratroopers. On moving from the business world to politics via the school system: Philanthropy was actually what got me to retire and go into public service. Twelve years ago I started a joint venture with the Hebrew University. We developed a non-profit called Snunit, which is the largest Hebrew educational Web site in the world, used predominantly by schools. My wife and I invested a few million dollars in this opportunity. But I believe in hands-on management, and I really wanted to know how we could make a difference in the school system. So we went into the school system and computerized a few dozen schools. I understood at some point that there was a problem: principals don't get it. So I developed a course, which I taught myself. I taught principals about management. And I really got to know them, and I started asking questions about how the education system works. The more I asked questions, the more concerned I became. I realized that the system is not actually being managed. I began to spend more and more of my time not in business but in Snunit and a couple of other initiatives. On his philosophy for school principals: Principals should become more like CEOs. They should seek ways to differentiate themselves, how to become the best school in the city, how to help get more funding. They're not in an environment that is aggressive or competitive enough. … The best principals know how to get the best teachers and how to train the good teachers to become better, and they create a great atmosphere. So eventually, the school is as good as its principal. On losing the vote for mayor to Uri Lupolianski in 2003: I received 43 percent of the vote, which meant that the public trusted me. I decided the night the results came in that I'd stay and run again. So I spent five years building a vision and learning the city much better… I invested all my time in better understanding how to serve the city... And actually that helped me a lot because in the last elections, I really knew what I wanted. On the city council: We have a municipal council of 31, and 30 of the members are part of the coalition. It's the haredim and the Left and Right - everyone together. People thought this would never stick. We're a year into it, and people are quite happy. Nobody gets everything he wants, but the common denominator is so great that we get along very well. On paying municipal taxes, or 'arnona': [The municipality] has no say in city taxes. They undergo mandatory increases from the federal government. But we're taking some serious measures to make sure people pay. It's not the reductions that are the problem, but there are a lot of people who can pay and should pay that aren't. Some 82 percent of people pay their arnona, and this year we're putting in measures to go up to 85%, a difference of NIS 60 million this year and NIS 120 million every year after. On the Karta parking lot riots: The Eda Haredit are less than 10% of the haredi community in Jerusalem. They're not represented in the municipality, on the council. They're not Zionist, they don't believe in the state. And so I had no experience with their leadership… But we solved the [Karta] problem. When people go to the Old City on the weekends, they don't block the streets anymore. There's no security issue, and eventually both the police and myself were happy. On the Intel riots: I believe that hopefully this issue is behind us. I'd prefer not to discuss the details and let the city calm down. The fact is that Intel is here and they're happy, and they are more considerate than they were before. Not because of the pressure but because they realized that they could be considerate. They have not lost a delivery, they have not lost anything. So we should focus on calming the city down. We worked very hard to help Intel reinvest and develop more lines in the city to keep the employees. There are 700 employees of Intel in Jerusalem, and we realized that if you took the right multiple, almost 3,000 families live off Intel, directly or indirectly. That's a huge impact on the city. On building in east Jerusalem: Jerusalem has to play the role it played 2,000 or 3,000 years ago: the center of the world, enabling people to come and practice their faith, Jews and non-Jews alike. When you want to open up Jerusalem for the benefit of the world, you have to invest in the product... When people talk about freezing the building, what exactly are they talking about? Freezing just the Jews? That's unconstitutional in the US. Or do you want to freeze by race? That doesn't make any sense. We're building classrooms for Arabs in east Jerusalem. We're giving more and more building permits to Arabs in east Jerusalem, and the Israeli Supreme Court enables Arabs to live on the west side and Jews on the east side. We have one law that does not discriminate. Some of the requests of the world have discriminatory goals that they would not dare to say in their own countries. I don't accept that. On stemming negative migration: I realize that we have to do a few things. That doesn't change in one day. You have to change the atmosphere. And I believe that the investment we made in culture has paid off. This summer, Jerusalem came alive with potential. We proved that Jerusalem can once again become a center for culture... We have to complement the religious experience that people come to Jerusalem for. We're also focused on getting more of the young population engaged with the city, with culture and education. We have 40,000 students in the city, and my goal is to focus on them and keep them here. It's easier to keep a young person here that lives here and loves it than to bring in somebody new. And I believe they really like the changes happening in the city. . On the light rail: I changed the way we work with the people building the train. They felt that the municipality was their partner. I changed it to the municipality and an outsourcer. Today, I see that they're on time and on target, much more than they were in the past. We changed the contract we had with them because they weren't obliged to work more than eight hours a day. I made sure that no junctions would be worked on at the same time if they were next to each other. Today, I can see we're about 90% done with the rails, and the initial train testing will be some time in January or February. I believe that if they push a little bit more, they can get the train running toward the end of next year. "But that's one line, and one line is not enough. In the last half year, I've been working with the Finance Ministry and the Transportation Ministry to propose a network, which also depends on negotiations with the contractor.