Snap judgement: If Mayor Barkat forgets thee, O Jerusalem

It’s sad to be the mayor of Jerusalem/It’s terrible/How can any man be the mayor of city like that/What can he do with her?

Mayor Nir Barkat at the Jerusalem Marathon press conference this past March (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat at the Jerusalem Marathon press conference this past March
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel’s greatest poet, the late, lamented Jerusalemite Yehuda Amichai, wrote those lines during the storied tenure of Teddy Kollek, who was not sad – quite the opposite – and accomplished quite a bit. The description better fit his two immediate successors, Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, with the first now sitting in prison and the second having missed a jail term he deserved by the skin of his teeth, after both enriched themselves at the city’s expense during their tenures.
And what of our current mayor, Nir Barkat? I first met the former hi-tech mogul about a decade ago, at a small neighborhood parlor meeting when he was still leading the opposition in the city council, and gearing up for a second run at the mayoralty.
He was there to hear residents of my busy Talpiot neighborhood street plead for the installation of stop-signs or speed-bumps to slow down the fast-moving traffic that posed a threat to our children. I was impressed then, as I have been in the handful of close encounters with the mayor since, with his intelligence, sincere commitment to the betterment of Jerusalem, willingness to hear out the complaints of residents, and enough honesty not to make false promises he couldn’t keep.
I’ve voted for him in the two mayoral elections since then, and don’t regret it. Especially coming after the Olmert/Lupolianski years, Jerusalem is today a cleaner, more efficiently run city that is less corrupt and offers more social and cultural benefits for its non-haredi residents, and Barkat deserves much of the credit.
That doesn’t mean I still don’t have complaints about the municipality, or that I agree with every position he takes. I don’t. Barkat has made clear from the very beginning he sees no place in the city’s political future for any kind of self-governance for its Palestinian residents, even of a symbolic kind, a position I believe will ultimately prove untenable.
He’s also been too tolerant of right-wing Jewish groups that seek to gentrify the city’s Arab neighborhoods with complete disregard for Jerusalem’s delicate social fabric.
Simply responding that “a Jew has the right to live anywhere in this city” is not sufficient.
I very much doubt the municipality would accept a similar campaign waged by secular Jewish activists to move into the heart of Mea She’arim, or any ultra-Orthodox enclave, with the same words.
Barkat has also been accused of neglecting Arab neighborhoods, but here I’m willing to give more of a pass than most of his critics.
The neglect of the capital’s Arab sector is a long-standing national policy that was no better – and in fact was worse – in Kollek’s day. Arab Jerusalemites, and especially the Palestinian leaders who profess to have their best interest interests at heart, also deserve much blame for their short-sided and self-defeating policy of boycotting any participation in municipal politics.
Barkat has taken some steps to improve the lot of Arab Jerusalemites, even to his political cost; for example, two years ago he expelled city council member Aryeh King from his coalition after King opposed and lobbied against plans to build more housing for Arab residents. The mayor deserves credit for this even from those who don’t share his overall political outlook.
YET IN THE past few months, Barkat has made moves that seem to me uncharacteristic of his earlier years in office.
Once a fervent critic of the Jerusalem Light Rail, he’s become such a firm supporter of the transport project that he’s now backing a plan for a line that will run down Emek Refaim Street in the midst of the historic German Colony neighborhood.
This proposal is rightly being opposed by residents and local businesses over concern it will disrupt the area’s character, yet city hall has proven deaf to their pleas.
The mayor has also brought into his coalition his opponent in the 2013 mayoral election, Moshe Leon, who now sits in the city council. Back then Barkat derided him as little more than a pawn for Avigdor Liberman to gain control of the municipality, and indeed, Leon amply demonstrated at the time he was willing to basically sell out the city’s non-haredi sector to gain ultra-Orthodox political support. Now Leon is in such apparent good graces with the mayor that some local political observers believe he will end up Barkat’s anointed successor.
Finally there’s Barkat’s decision not to participate in the city’s gay pride parade last week, despite it being dedicated to the memory of Shira Banki, the teenager murdered at last year’s event. It’s true he’s taken other steps to support Jerusalem’s LGBT population, and this latest move was consistent with his behavior in past years. But what I found jarring, and really unnecessary, was his statement that he was avoiding the parade so as not to offend the city’s religious population.
Taken together, these steps appear calculated to help, or at least not hinder, his openly stated desire to move into national politics after joining the Likud last year, and eventually emerge as Benjamin Netanyahu’s successor as party leader and prime minister. In pursuit of that goal I believe he has embraced the light rail as a big-ticket infrastructure project he can claim credit for, and taking in Leon opens a possible accommodation and political alliance with nationalist camp power-broker Liberman. Barkat’s willingness to accommodate Orthodox religious sensitivities at the expense of the LGBT community will also ease his path to the premiership.
I’m disappointed that Barkat is already showing these signs of kowtowing in pursuit of bigger political goals. While I’m not a member of the nationalist camp, I do think he has the potential to be a more responsible and effective – and less corrupt and demagogic – leader of the Right than many of the other pretenders to Bibi’s throne.
Right now I’m more concerned about the future of my city. Barkat has openly said it’s possible he may not complete his current term in pursuit of a position on the national political stage, and that’s legitimate. But it would be a terrible blow to Jerusalem if in doing so he is prepared to hand over the municipality to corrupt interests ready to sell out the city’s non-haredi residents.
So good luck, Mayor Barkat, but more important, buck up, and remember who got you elected twice. As another poet said, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand... ”; well, you know the rest.
Oh, and by the way, we never did get those speed-bumps or stop signs on Beitar Street. Maybe you can finally take care of that before you move on.
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.