Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Jewish housing
When Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat took office 18 months ago, he was heralded as a secular, progressive high-tech entrepreneur who would apply his business savvy to modernizing the ancient city, particularly after five years under an ultra-Orthodox leader.
Barkat hired the same consultants as Disney for advice about crowd management and stood up to ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who demanded that he close city parking lots on the Sabbath.
Already a multimillionaire, the 50-year-old mayor refused his government salary and spoke often about finding “win-win” compromises and burnishing Jerusalem’s “brand.”
But many now wonder whether Barkat is more ideological and politically minded than they thought.
He’s resisted enforcing a court order to remove Jewish families living in an illegally built housing project in an Arab-dominated neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Critics see his hand behind the recent advancement of several Jewish housing tracts that have infuriated Palestinians and led to a rift with the Obama administration.
His pet project is a controversial development that would tear down about two dozen illegally built Arab homes in the neighborhood of Silwan and replace them with a Zionist-themed archaeology park and retail center.
One Arab lawmaker called Barkat a “pyromaniac.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the mayor to shelve the plan until tempers cooled.
But Barkat is refusing to back down. As he embarked on a U.S. trip this week, the mayor spoke with a small group of Western journalists about why he will fight any attempts to slow down construction.
Q: The Obama administration doesn’t want to see provocative actions in Jerusalem, like development of Jewish neighborhoods on disputed land in East Jerusalem. How has that been communicated to you?
A: Jerusalem will grow, with me or without me, with the American administration or without the American administration. Jerusalem is a city that is developing. The city will [have] 1 million people in 20 years. The key question is: Are we going to manage it or not? It’s very straightforward thinking. Nothing new. Nothing political. Very professional. My role and goal is to manage the growth process of the city.
Q: Has there been any guidance from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt or slow construction in neighborhoods over the Green Line?
A: No. I don’t know of any other city where, all of a sudden, the American administration has all kinds of requests [about limiting construction]. On the contrary, I think the Israeli government understands we are honestly and fairly building the city. It’s a lot of catch-up [work].
Q: There’s been speculation that rather than a formal, public freeze in East Jerusalem, there will be an unstated policy to simply avoid approval of large or controversial projects.
A: It cannot work. First of all, when we say freeze, do you mean [a freeze on] Arab building in the city or only Jewish building in the city or both?
Q: On Jewish building in the eastern part of the city that presumably would become part of a future Palestinian state.
A: Do you freeze building for Arabs in the western part of the city? It’s illegal. It’s an illegal demand. It’s illegal in the U.S. It’s illegal in Europe. And it’s illegal in Israel. Therefore it’s a straight no. The same rules for Jews and Arabs apply in all parts of the city of Jerusalem. It’s a free market. [People] can buy and sell.
Q: But doesn’t the Jewish National Fund control most of the land in Israel and doesn’t it have restrictions against dealing with non-Jews?
A: That’s not true in the city of Jerusalem. It’s different in other parts of the country. In Jerusalem, the vast majority of the land is privately owned. Ownership in the city is diverse.
Q: There haven’t been any new approvals by municipal planning committees of significant Jewish housing projects in East Jerusalem since the spat with the U.S. Is that correct?
A: You don’t approve on a daily basis. You can expect 37,000 new [housing units] for Jewish residents and 13,000 for Arab residents from now until 2030. It’s a long, cumbersome process to build in Jerusalem. The expansion is in phases, and I anticipate that the process will continue for the benefit of all residents.
Q: Is the central government talking to you about ways to manage Jerusalem’s growth so it doesn’t get in the way of proximity peace talks?
A: If somebody wants to make this an issue that gets in the way, that’s his problem. Never in the discussions between Israelis and Palestinians was continued building for all residents of Jerusalem an obstacle. It’s not a condition that I will accept. And it’s not a condition that the people of Jerusalem will accept nor the public opinion of Israel. Jerusalem will not freeze. Nobody wants to be provocative. Local government has a fiduciary duty to give service to the people. If you don’t enable people to build on the west side, they leave. Negative migration of Jerusalem is one of the biggest problems of Jews in Jerusalem. And if you don’t plan and enable building for Arabs, they build illegally.
Q: Jerusalem is becoming less Jewish as the city’s Jewish population, as an overall percentage, drops. Why is that happening, and if Jewish growth is falling, why do you need so much new Jewish housing?
A: The biggest problem in Jerusalem is the fact that the general public, the Zionist public, left for a few reasons. They left, No. 1, because of jobs. No. 2, because of the price of housing, because there is not enough housing. Unfortunately, the solution the Arabs [found] to that problem was to build illegally. Jews didn’t build illegally and there’s a shortfall of housing, and prices went up.
In order to maintain reasonable prices of housing, we must bring about 3,000 new apartments to the Jewish population and 1,000 new apartments for the Arab population a year.
Q: The recent bribery and corruption scandal over the Holyland real estate project has implicated several government officials, including two former Jerusalem mayors. Are systemic reforms needed to prevent corruption?
A: Like everyone else, [I think] it’s a hard time for the city of Jerusalem. It’s shameful to look at what has happened. There is no substitute for honest brokers.
Q: So it all boils down to the integrity of the mayor?
A: [It involves] officials, public servants, the professional team. They have to be honest. Whatever [anti-corruption] system you put on, if [those involved] are not honest, then eventually you’ve done nothing. What I’ve brought from the first day is full transparency. We have 30 committees. All but one are open to the public. They were never open [before.] So you didn’t know what you didn’t know. By bringing transparency, you dramatically decrease the chances of [corruption.]
Q: People are beginning to view you as more political and ideological. Are you?
A: I’m an independent. My views are very clear. I put goals and plans in place before the election and I’m sticking to my plan. My goal and role is to serve all residents of the city. I’m not doing this for anything but the future of the city.
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