Interview: Nir Barkat

This man wants to transform his city. All he has to do is find the money, pacify the Orthodox, convince the Arabs…

By Jenni Frazer, March 25, 2010

This time next year, if the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, is to be believed, the first railway line connecting the north and south of the city will open. Next year, too, a Jerusalem marathon will be in place, reflecting the mayor's own love of running. Thousands more tourists will flood in, there will be more cultural events ("last year we broke all records") and more job opportunities.

Barkat's innate cheerfulness is expressed in an avalanche of techno-babble, almost certainly a legacy of his own background. He is a former high-tech entrepreneur who turned 50 last year, a one-time paratrooper in the Israeli Defence Forces who first entered politics in 2003. After five years leading the opposition in the Jerusalem municipality, he won the mayoralty in November 2008.

His unique selling point is that he is a secular mayor, not such a bad thing in a city with seething groups of strictly Orthodox campaigners whose unifying force is often their loathing for each other. Barkat heads a coalition of 30 out of 31 city councillors, and many of his coalition partners are, of course, strictly Orthodox. At the same time, however, he is passionately right-wing, promoting himself not just as a builder of Jerusalem but as one committed to seeing Jews settle everywhere and anywhere in the city. Asked how he is regarded by the Palestinians of east Jerusalem, with whom he is currently in confrontation over his plans to demolish homes in the Silwan neighbourhood, the mayor argues that the Palestinians "say one thing in public, but another thing in private". Such a contention, of course, is hard to prove.

Seated in the expensive surroundings of Claridge's Hotel - the mayor has been in London this week to address a session at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs - he talks at length about his plans. A fluent and idiomatic English speaker, he is full of buzzwords such as "vision" and "challenges".

Crucial to the "vision", he says, is to increase the number of tourists into Jerusalem, from the current two million a year to an almost unimaginable 10 million. And he wants to do this by attracting investment in a city which is the poorest in Israel, many of whose secular citizens are heading for the exit, leaving behind a burgeoning strictly Orthodox population, not enough of whom pay municipal taxes. Add to that the ongoing tension with Palestinians, the heightened security considerations, and the all-too-frequent rioting, and one might reasonably wonder why anyone should put money into such a fractured, and fractious, economy.

The Silwan plan 'is not on hold'

But Barkat is sanguine. Asked if being mayor of Jerusalem was the worst job in the world, he smiles and says his first 15 months have exceeded his expectations. "Some of my predecessors had problems putting together a coalition to realise their vision. I don't have that problem. So the answer to your question is no, the opposite."

His coalition partners, he says, have all signed up for the "Barkat Plan". "The goal is to develop Jerusalem to fulfil its role," he says, "to open it up for the benefit of the world to enjoy, to allow freedom for people to practise their religion, and to develop the infrastructure to enable Jerusalem to cope with the increased numbers of visitors."

The mayor insists that the population decline has slowed down. "There were four reasons why people left in the past: jobs, the prices of housing, education and the general quality of life." He has a master plan to tackle these issues, he says. "Last year we had an increase of 30 per cent of requests for new businesses… don't always listen to the news."

What kind of businesses? "All sorts, all sorts, lots of trade, lots of culture and tourism ventures," he says.

This sounds a bit vague.

"Jerusalem is becoming a mini-hub for culture which feeds, and gets fed, by the vision I shared with you earlier," he adds.

Barkat has plans to expand the existing Teddy Stadium, named after his iconic predecessor, Teddy Kollek, and turn it into Israel's national sports centre, as well as developing the current conference centre, Binyanei Ha'oma, to become the biggest in the country.

It sounds impressive, but does it address the concerns of the residents of the city, Jews and Arabs, who want their streets kept clean, parking for their cars, and more job opportunities?

"Growing the number of tourists from two to 10 million will create 140,000 jobs," he insists. In what time frame? "A decade."

He also thinks that the increasing number of health life sciences businesses in the city - 25 per cent of Israel's total - will create 2,000 more jobs in the next two to three years. And - like many other world city mayors - he says, reasonably enough, that it is vital to improve public transport. Hence the light railway and an ambitious plan to feed the bus system into its north-to-south stations - plus, in a further five years, the reintroduction of a fast train service which will link Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport.

His plans for housing are no less ambitious. His goal, he says, is to put 3,000 new apartments on the market every year. He also wants to tackle the problem of so-called "ghost" apartments, flats owned by foreign visitors but not lived in. There are 9,000 such apartments in the city, he says, which must be made available for rent. And then, of course, there is new building…and demolition.

In the last few months, new building in Jerusalem, always a volatile subject, has hit the headlines repeatedly. Despite a 10-month moratorium on settlement building given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the news that 1,600 new apartments were planned in the strictly Orthodox Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo, announced during the visit to Israel of US Vice President Joe Biden earlier this month, exacerbated tensions in the city and led to a near unprecedented row between Israel and the Obama administration.

But in the background has been Mayor Barkat's plan to demolish 88 houses in the east Jerusalem area of Silwan - because, he says, they were illegally built - and clear the area for a park and residential neighbourhood. Reports last weekend suggested that Netanyahu, badly burned by the Biden experience, had asked the mayor to hold off on the Silwan project, but Barkat is adamant: "It's not on hold."

He acknowledges that in relationship to the Arab residents of east Jerusalem, "from my perspective we had lots of catching up to do. Silwan is an example: you see lots of illegal buildings in areas that were never planned. This forces us to re-plan the whole area. The re-planning of Silwan is a pilot for other residential areas in Jerusalem."

A blizzard of pie charts and graphs emerge: "Imagine what the mayor of London would do if someone built in the middle of Hyde Park." The essential difference, of course, is that Hyde Park exists as a designated green area, whereas Silwan, as the mayor himself concedes, "is a slum". Barkat's determination to clear it, however, backed by the national government, is likely to be realised. His concession to the Palestinian residents is to allow the re-built apartments to be up to four storeys high, rather than the current two. "In no other country can people violate the law [over planning permits and demolition]. That is my aim - to apply the law equally and fairly," he says.

It has been a slightly Sarah Palin-esque hour. The mayor is undoubtedly charming and a poster boy for the New Right. Told that there was likely to be impassioned opposition to his Chatham House address, he smiles. "They are invited to come in and listen. That is all I ask."

Last updated: 10:47am, March 25 2010