Silwan – ‘It’s the economy, stupid’

Nir Barkat’s plan aims to create jobs.

Silwan 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Silwan 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A lot has been said about Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s plan to destroy houses in Silwan in order to build a new tourism center in the east Jerusalem neighborhood. Many opinions have been voiced, from those in favor to the fiercely against. This is typical of any issue involving Jerusalem, especially in these times.
However, one thing needs to be clarified; this is not a “whim,” and it is not an attempt by Barkat to derail a potential peace process, and it should also not be seen as a cynical effort to grab international headlines.
The plan to build a park with a commercial and tourist center is something the mayor truly believes is in – it is in the interest of the future of Jerusalem and the improvement of its local economy through the expansion of tourism. It’s not about Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas, but rather, along the lines of the famous Bill Clinton campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
FOR YEARS, anyone who met with the mayor or followed his public statements and policies has heard him speak time and again about the fact that the biggest concern for the future of the city is the job market.
I grew up in Jerusalem and have seen most of my friends migrate elsewhere. I know this is true. Young residents don’t leave Jerusalem just because of the nightlife in Tel Aviv, or due to the lack of housing (anyone who has lived in Tel Aviv can tell you that the housing’s no picnic there either). They also don’t leave due to the secular/religious tension. They leave, first and foremost, because more often than not, Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas are where the jobs are; where they can work and prosper. That’s where opportunity lies these days.
Barkat is right to try to boost the local economy by further capitalizing on Jerusalem’s best economic asset – tourism. The re-zoning of the area known as the “King’s Gardens” into a vibrant park (which it has been zoned as for years) complete with a commercial and tourism center, will draw large numbers of tourists, which will benefit both Jewish and non-Jewish residents. This is municipal planning aimed at serving east Jerusalem while enforcing the rule of law.
It makes sense to focus on revitalizing the King’s Gardens area, which for years has been “zoned” as “green” but has been built on illegally. The historical and religious significance of these gardens is well known; they are where King Solomon sat and wrote the Song of Songs, and where in the times of the Temples the herbs were prepared for the ritual incense. So it would seem like a smart move to use this asset to Jerusalem’s advantage.
Yes, the Silwan project includes the always-tough demolition of homes.
However those homes were built illegally.
Barkat’s Silwan project is not a “Holyland” type project born in (alleged) sin, but rather in accordance with the law. The best evidence is that it will most probably be challenged in the courts by both the Left, angry at the demolitions, and by the Right, angry by the move to retroactively legalize illegally built homes in the area (at three times the number of those that will be demolished), not to mention the inclusion of a municipally funded community center.
BARKAT HAS a vision for Jerusalem.
This includes creating places of employment, first and foremost by drawing millions of tourists a year to the city. He campaigned on it, was elected on it, and is now taking another step to implement it. Yes, he sees Jerusalem as indivisible, but even those that disagree with his geopolitical views need to acknowledge that he is showing willingness to serve all his constituents, whether Jewish or Arab. The Silwan saga should not be taken either as a lesson in political cynicism or as an international provocation. This is called good governance, plain and simple.
In the face of tremendous criticism both at home and abroad, Barkat should be applauded for his political courage and not ambushed by coalition partners like Meretz, which signed off on these plans when it joined his local government.
This is especially true in a country lacking politicians capable of developing a long-term strategy for serving the public, and where most would rather seek immediate results. Barkat’s consistent approach should be appreciated.
Let’s hope this project is approved, and that it will be only one of many initiated to ensure a better future for our capital.
The writer was bureau chief for the former minister of public security Avi Dichter.