Since winning the mayoralty of Jerusalem in 2008, Nir Barkat has embarked on a number of bold initiatives to rejuvenate the city. By most accounts, he has been successful, establishing the capital as a cultural, economic and political hub, while cracking down on crime and corruption.
A year into his second term, Barkat, 54, spoke to The CJN ahead of a June 8 visit to Toronto about his plans for the city and the strong bond between Jerusalem and Canada.
What are the differences between your first and second mandates? What did you learn the first time around that helps you this time?
Entering my first term, the city was in quite a negative state. After five years of hard work, the economy is booming and our municipal budget has grown by double digits four years in a row. Crime rates are going down and good things are happening. So we have entered the second term with very strong backwind and lots of things on the ground.
Because of the success of the first term, I believe we will accomplish even more this time.
Tell us about the rejuvenation projects you’ve undertaken.
We have more than quadrupled the number of cultural events in the city. We’ve launched many new projects, like the light festival in the Old City that drew 300,000 visitors in a week. We had the Formula One road show, with almost 300,000 spectators in two days. Our cultural organizations have moved from survival to creative mode and are doing much better than in the past.
Tourism is up – hotel occupancy rose from 40 per cent to around 70 per cent, and we have investments in the pipeline to create more than 10,000 hotel rooms.
When you look at all the parameters of a healthy economy, we’re headed in the right direction. There are many cranes in the air. Many are private investors, some are public and some are public-private partnerships. And the satisfaction of the residents is much higher than before.
We also see progress in high school matriculation results. We’ve moved from below the national average to above it. And the number of people in youth movements went from 25 to 44 per cent.
What are the next steps in your rejuvenation project?
We have mega-projects in the pipeline. We finished the first light rail line in the city, and we’re deep into developing two additional light rail lines that I believe we’ll start working on as soon as this year. We have the fast train from Tel Aviv in the works, which will be ready in the first half of 2018.
We are building a very large business district at the entrance to the city. There will be 13 towers of 35 stories, with 11 million square feet of office space, hotel rooms and commerce.
We’re building the largest sports com-plex in the country, which includes the expanded Teddy soccer stadium and a new arena, the largest in the country.
When you look at Jerusalem five, seven, 10 years down the road, it will be a fundamentally different city – much more connected with public transport, with a big push for the business sector, hotel industry, culture and sports.
We’re positioning Jerusalem for the next 50 to 100 years.
Why do you believe government ministries should be based in Jerusalem? And why do you think the decision to move them there has been stalled?
The law in Israel requires all national offices to be in the capital. In the last few decades, there has been a slow decline in the fulfillment of the law. The national government should lead by example in obeying the law. By not having government ministry offices in Jerusalem, you are actually weakening the city. I believe in the next few years when we develop the new business district, we will see swifter and faster movement of more government offices to Jerusalem.
What is your relationship with Jerusalem’s haredi population?
Like all populations, they are represented in my coalition, as they were during my last term. Naturally, there are many differences of opinion in the coalition and city management, but there is lots of mutual respect.
Why have you taken a stand against partitioning Jerusalem?
Jerusalem was never and must never be divided into tribes. There’s only one way for the city to function, both ideologically and practically, and that is as a united city. There’s no city in the world that has stayed functional while being divided. They either become dysfunc-tional or reunite. So why go there in the first place? Ideologically it will never work. Practically there are no good examples.
With the news that one of your predecessors, Ehud Olmert, is going to jail for corruption, how can the Israeli political class restore the faith of voters?
The fact my two predecessors disobeyed the law is sad for Jerusalem. However, since I took office, I’ve made some dramatic changes in the way I manage the municipality. We opened up all committees. We have proposed that all municipal planning processes be totally transparent and open to public debate. We have dramatically fixed the way we do business. And I believe we have gained the public’s trust that we’re here to serve them, not anything else.
My message to the public is that they can trust the municipal government to be honest and ethical and to serve the residents. I’m very happy that Israel has proven that nobody is above the law.
How does Canada House contribute to Jerusalem? What does it say about the relationship between our two countries?
I’m amazed and proud of the relationship between Canada and Israel, from [Canadian Prime Minister Stephen] Harper and [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu all the way to the people of Israel and the people of Canada.
Canadians have a high degree of commitment to the mutual goals of our two peoples. Outside Israel, Canadians are the most committed to the future of our country.
Canada House focuses on one of the key elements of our future: how to keep young people in Jerusalem. It’s had a huge impact in understanding how to do that, which is critical to the success of the city. It’s building future leadership and strengthening Jerusalem today.
I want to thank the people of Canada for the amazing relationship we have.
How would you characterize the security situation in Jerusalem right now?
When I fly to America, I pray before I get on the airplane. Our murder rate is one per 200,000 people every year. That’s probably 10 times better than any average American city, and I would guess it’s better than Toronto, too. We are one of the safest cities in the world, with one-third the crime of Tel Aviv and one-tenth of any American city. If you come and walk the streets, you will feel extremely secure.