Yosef Alalu
Yosef Alalu. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Yosef "Pepe" Alalu, 65, the Hobbit-like man with the ponytail, beard and Spanish accent, is a very familiar figure to any Jerusalemite. Considered one of the leaders of the city's secular population, at demonstrations he is usually welcomed by the rhythmic and encouraging cries of "Pepe, Pepe."

After 11 years in the opposition, with a heavy heart Alalu joined the broad coalition of Mayor Nir Barkat, where he served as deputy mayor and held the culture portfolio. But two days ago, after voting against Barkat's plan to build a park in King's Garden (Al Bustan, in Arabic ) in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and to demolish 22 buildings belonging to Palestinians, Alalo received a laconic letter of dismissal: "Due to repeated violations of the coalition agreement... there is no longer a place for the existence of the agreement. I am therefore informing you of the revocation of all the powers you received. Your are therefore no longer entitled to a salary or to the accompanying conditions [effective immediately]," wrote Barkat.

Along with Alalu, two other members of the Meretz faction were ousted from the municipal coalition, which has now become more right-wing and more religious.

Today Alalu reveals for the first time that he did not vote for Barkat in the last elections and beginning tomorrow he will resume the role of oppositionist, with his objective being to find another secular candidate to take over City Hall in Safra Square.

Why did you agree to give up your place in the coalition for the sake of Palestinian residents who will never vote for you?

That's the problem with the left, whatever you do people are never satisfied. They'll always ask you how you can stay, and if you leave they'll ask you how you can leave. I immigrated to Israel from Peru as a Zionist, I came here out of idealism. I joined a type of politics that doesn't count the votes. Maybe for that reason we'll never be in power. But there's a message in it for the next generation - that there's another kind of politics, based on principles rather than seats.

Salary doesn't interest me; so we'll use more water in the soup. In recent months it was hard for me to brush my teeth, because then I had to look in the mirror. I knew where Barkat was leading us. Fortunately, the Americans put a stop to the demolition of houses. Had it not been for that, we would have left the coalition long ago. I really am at peace with myself, but I'm sad - I was after all in a position of influence and I'd started do something about culture in Jerusalem.

Why did you vote against the plan? Though it includes the demolition of homes, it also approves 66 homes that were built illegally and could improve the lives of the residents of Silwan.

"I'm in favor of residents being involved in making decisions; those who know what's good for them are the residents themselves. Barkat kept telling me that the resident's opposition was nonsense and that what they tell him isn't what they tell me. That may be, I have my doubts, but what I hear from the residents is not what he hears either. They submitted two plans, the first was tossed into the garbage and the second didn't even come up for an initial discussion. I expected that we would at least discuss their plan. Barkat refused.

This is actually a pinui-binui [clear and build] plan [a type of urban renewal]. We have never succeeded in doing it in the western part of the city, so we'll succeed here? In a situation where we don't know who the owners of the land are, when we'll have to transfer residents to live on top of one another? That's a fantasy. And let's say there is a chance. Why now? Barkat knows it's an explosive situation. Now, of all times, when there's quiet in Jerusalem, when tourists are beginning to arrive, two weeks before the prime minister will meet with [U.S. President Barack] Obama. If there's even a two percent chance of a blowup, is it worth it to us?

Why do you think Barkat decided to promote the plan, despite the criticism and despite the improbability that it will actually be implemented?

I have no answer. There are several possibilities. The first is that he wants to enter into national politics, like Olmert. That's no crime. His niche is to the right of Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] and that's how he's trying to position himself. Another possibility is that he has delusions about the Middle East and doesn't understand the reality. The third possibility is that he has developed an obsession. He's an obsessive person, as was seen with the story concerning the municipal legal adviser [attorney Yossi Havilio, with whom Barkat has clashed in recent months]. So now he's developed an obsession for this plan."

In your opinion, should Jerusalem residents be afraid of Nir Barkat?

The last elections marked the first time in my life that I cast a white ballot [abstention]. That has never happened to me, not even in elections for the tenants' committee. I really had planned to vote for him, but behind the curtain I simply couldn't do it. I know who the man is. He didn't surprise me. I think we're now seeing a worse Barkat - more aggressive, more ambitious, who rules alone - and slowly but surely everyone will fall silent.

What is your opinion on the situation in East Jerusalem?

Jerusalemites don't know what's happening there, no more than 10 percent have actually walked around the eastern part of the city - but still everyone will tell you, you don't know the Arabs, I know them. But there's growing extremism on the other side, too. Three or four years ago we still held meetings, and we held joint demonstrations. Today even I am considered an enemy in the eyes of the residents of East Jerusalem. They don't trust me either.

There's also terrible neglect. Take education for example, there's no education there; maybe there's a babysitter so the children won't run around and throw stones. It's at the lowest level possible.

Most of the secular residents of Jerusalem see the increasing ultra-Orthodoxy as the city's main problem. Didn't you make a mistake in leaving a municipal coalition with a majority of Haredim and religious Zionist members?

The increasing ultra-Orthodoxy is not the worst problem, the worst problems are [connected to] poverty, unemployment and young people. The Haredim are not stupid, they understand that without secular people and without a strong secular community they have nothing to do in Jerusalem. Without us there will be terrible poverty here, there won't be roads and there won't be parks. There's a power struggle here, but we have to help to solve the problems of the Haredim, in housing and in public buildings. If we don't solve these problems, they'll come to Kiryat Yovel and other [Jerusalem neighborhoods]. The Haredim have a different culture, it's impossible to become closer to them and it's impossible to live in mixed neighborhoods. But we need dialogue with them just as we need dialogue with the Palestinians.

What's next?

I have set myself a goal of ousting Nir Barkat from the mayoralty. I don't rule out supporting a Haredi candidate in the next elections, but I believe I'll find a worthy secular candidate. I'm sure there is one such person out there and we'll promote his candidacy. Barkat has prepared to serve eight years in the position and invested a great deal of money. Now that they've taken away my salary I have less money (laughs ). But I'll do it, it's my duty.