JERUSALEM — Hanging over his desk, Nir Barkat keeps a large framed photograph of himself running the Jerusalem half-marathon. The city’s new mayor is quick to remind a visitor he also runs full marathons.
That’s good: He’s going to need the perseverance of a long-distance runner to pull off his ambitious plan to save Jerusalem.
Though Israel’s capital and one of the world’s oldest and most revered cities, Jerusalem is also the poorest city in Israel, with high housing prices, a shrinking non-Orthodox population and a dwindling middle class.
In an interview with JTA at his office atop the municipal building, Barkat expounded on his plans to revitalize Jerusalem.
Boyish looking at 49, Barkat cuts an earnest figure in a charcoal gray suit, sky blue Oxford shirt and no tie. The former paratrooper, who made millions in high-tech, has been in office for three months after defeating veteran haredi politician Meir Porush and others.
Secular and modern Orthodox Jerusalemites greeted his election with great hope, thinking Barkat might be able to lift the city from its current rut. (Most Arab residents boycotted the election, as they do most years, in protest against Israeli sovereignty over the city.)
Barkat will be travelling to the United States, where he hopes to reach out to American Jews and make them partners in revitalizing Jerusalem. To use his language, he sees them as “shareholders” in the city.
“I know there is not one Jew who does not care about the future of Jerusalem, and what I propose is a partnership,” he said.
Barkat’s plan is to create special economic zones in Jerusalem that are focused on culture, life sciences and tourism. He will make his pitch in visits to New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco and Florida.
Barkat is hoping Diaspora Jews will be investment partners in joint business ventures. For example, he says, Jews in Los Angeles might invest in Jerusalem’s fledgling film industry, and biotech engineers in Boston might invest in biotech in a city that hosts Hadassah Hospital and the prestigious Hebrew University.
The global financial crisis is no deterrent, he says.
“I believe in the short term, it will be more of a challenge because people have less than they had in the past or less than they want, but I’m not talking about short term,” Barkat told JTA. “I want to build relationships. It’s the way we do business together.”
As part of the mayor’s campaign to develop the city, Barkat was recently named honorary chair of the Jerusalem Foundation, the non-profit organization founded by former mayor Teddy Kollek in 1967 dedicated to the physical enhancement of the city and to social and educational enhancement of its people.
Barkat and the foundation have committed themselves to working together in co-operation to further strengthen the capital of Israel. He closed down the New Jerusalem Foundation, an initiative of Ehud Olmert when Olmert was mayor of the city, whose mission overlapped with the older, more recognized foundation established by Kollek. In doing so Barkat sent a clear message to philanthropists around the world in support of the Jerusalem Foundation and its central role in the city’s rejuvenation and development.
But Barkat’s direct, unabashed approach towards his work has raised the ire of some observers. He tussled verbally with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this month over his plan to demolish some 80 Arab houses in the neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the walls of the Old City, to make way for an archeological park. Clinton called his plan “unhelpful” and a violation of peace efforts, while Barkat dismissed the criticism as based on “disinformation.”
The dispute is one of Barkat’s first tests as mayor.
The neighbourhood slated for demolition is comprised of houses built illegally by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem on land that had been set aside 20 years ago as open green space for an archeological garden.
Under three previous city administrations the houses were never removed, but recently the development plans for a park were revived.
Critics of the plan claim the issue is about politics. Not only will it displace some 1,000 Arab residents, they say, but it’s part of a wider, ideologically motivated plan to secure the future of a united, Jewish Jerusalem in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Barkat, who favours settling Jews in Silwan – several dozen families have moved into the largely Arab area in recent years – rejects such criticism and says the people who live there will be relocated.
“If you have a group of people trying to plan housing in Central Park, what do you think Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg would do?” Barkat asked rhetorically. “And this park has more importance than Central Park because of its historical significance.”
As for the relationship between the municipal and national governments, Barkat said he foresees a good working relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu and his staff when Netanyahu becomes prime minister.
“I know the people, and I believe they want to develop and improve Jerusalem,” the mayor said. “There is good chemistry.”
Barkat hopes the new government will provide a stimulus package for the city, which previous governments have promised but never delivered.
To keep the young and middle class in Jerusalem, Barkat is hoping his economic cluster zones will bear fruit and that more jobs in high-tech, life sciences, tourism and culture will keep people in Jerusalem.
“When you make Jerusalem a special economic zone, it will start raining on everyone, and with more jobs, the city comes out of its poverty,” Barkat said.
He has also called for construction of more affordable housing, not just the luxury projects aimed at Diaspora Jewish buyers with money who have been predominant in recent years. Barkat wants the absentee Diaspora homeowners to rent their apartments inexpensively to local university students.
“You own an apartment, you subsidize students, help the economy and decrease the price of other apartments,” he said with his trademark smile. “It’s a classic win-win.”
–With files from The CJN