Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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The decision by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee to approve Mayor Nir Barkat's plan to demolish 22 illegal structures in Silwan threatens not only to spark a diplomatic crisis but also to change the very makeup of Barkat's coalition, it emerged this week. Barkat fired his deputy Yosef "Pepe" Alalu of Meretz, pushing the party's three councillors into opposition and remaining with an ultra-Orthodox majority coalition, despite winning his post last year on a strong secularist ticket.

To many of Barkat's supporters, his choice to forfeit Alalu and the two other Meretz councillors signaled a shift away from the secular elements of the agenda in favor of nationalist ones.

"The ultra-Orthodox influence will grow. Meretz were our partners, and their departure from the coalition is just bad," said Meirav Cohen, spokeswoman for the Wake Up Jerusalem faction, which remains in the coalition. "I don't know why it was necessary to put Meretz in a position where they would need to vote in favor of house demolitions in Silwan. That was an aggressive move."

Eli Levi, chairman of the city-center merchants' union and a one-time fervent Barkat supporter, said he could not make sense of the mayor's maneuver. "So what if they voted against? They have a path, they have an electorate. I don't support it but it's their path. Why corner them? Don't we have enough problems in the city?" he asked.

Many Jerusalem residents this week tried to rationalize why Barkat was willing to suffer criticism at home and abroad, increase his municipal opposition from one councilman to four - and all for a plan that may well never be allowed to materialize. The most popular explanation was that the mayor is deliberately courting the right wing ahead of the next municipal election. "He'll be losing me and several thousands like me, but winning the loyalty of many other residents," said a leading Jerusalem cultural luminary, who only agreed to be identified as G. "I won't vote for an ultra-Orthodox candidate, but I certainly won't be voting for Barkat," he says.

Alalu, on the other hand, told Haaretz earlier this week that he did not rule out the option of supporting an ultra-Orthodox candidate over Barkat.

Barkat said the decision to demolish 22 houses was a compromise decision between carrying out or disobeying a court order to demolish all 88 illegal structures in the neighborhood. His associates point out that his plan is also drawing criticism from the right. As for Meretz, they say the party routinely broke the coalition agreement that allowed them to abstain on grounds of principle.

"The mayor is not on the lookout for the right wing or for the next elections. He's doing this because this is the right thing to do for the benefit of the residents and for the rule of law," one close associate said.