Barkat Promises Glitz for Second Term but Sectarianism Remains

Mayor's efforts in his first term to close gaps between west and east Jerusalem and solve some of the problems in the east seem eclipsed by mounting tensions.

Mayor Nir Barkat will present his coalition Thursday at the first Jerusalem City Council meeting since his reelection last month. Plans for the next five years call for an entirely different capital by 2018 - a Jerusalem that can be reached by train from Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center in 28 minutes.

The entrance to the city will have a new business district; at the very least, construction will have begun. The light rail system will extend to Hadassah University Hospital at Ein Karem and Mount Scopus. Meanwhile, an “Olympic village” with the country’s largest ice-skating rink is in the works, and the Biblical Zoo will get an aquarium replete with sharks.

But the situation on the ground is a bit tougher than in the planning brochures. Barkat begins his second term with a less-united coalition and tensions between the municipality and Arabs in East Jerusalem.

Two incidents last week suggest the direction Jerusalem could go over the next five years. The first was a harsh protest letter by ultra-Orthodox and nationalist Orthodox rabbis to Barkat. The second was approval for the establishment of a new national park on the slopes of Mount Scopus.

The rabbis condemned “various and strange spectacles of abominations in street parties full of promiscuity and loathsomeness.” The rabbis’ anger was kindled by the Knights Festival, a celebration of medieval culture now being held in the streets of the Old City. “Never for many decades has a man hurt the Holy City as you do,” the rabbis wrote.

Barkat was reelected thanks to a strong alliance between the city’s secular community and its national religious residents, both of which voted in large numbers. Also, small but significant groups of Haredi Jerusalemites helped ensure Barkat five more years.

But the rabbis’ letter indicates that an alliance of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox nationalists could put Barkat’s coalition at risk if the powder keg of religious issues is ignited. Explosive issues include the increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews moving into secular neighborhoods and the opening of the city’s new cinema complex on Saturdays.

The new City Council is more ultra-Orthodox and more right-wing than its predecessors. The ultra-Orthodox received two more seats than in the previous council and now hold 14 of the 31 seats. They have three more if one counts the right-wing and religious parties.

But luckily for Barkat, the ultra-Orthodox factions are more split internally than they were five years ago, a factor that probably helped Barkat win last month. Still, when issues arise that are dear to the ultra-Orthodox, the community tends to overcome its internal differences. “The split doesn’t have to continue,” a leading ultra-Orthodox figure said.

Barkat has signed coalition agreements with two right-wing and religious factions, United Jerusalem and Habayit Hayehudi, and secular parties Hitorerut and Yerushalmim. An agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is said to be close at hand.

Talks with ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the largest faction on the council, are bogged down by the poor relationship between Barkat and the faction’s leaders. The mayor refuses to choose as deputy mayors the Jerusalem head of United Torah Judaism, Yitzkak Pindros, or Shas’ Eliyahu Simhayoff.

The secular factions also come to the table unhappy after Barkat chose to begin his coalition talks with the right-wing parties, which did not support him in the elections. But the secular parties joined the coalition in any case.

Left-wing Meretz, which was part of Barkat’s last coalition, is in the opposition this time, in protest over the presence of right-wing activist Aryeh King in the coalition. Meretz’s Pepe Aflalo, a former deputy mayor, said Barkat had broken the rule of rewarding loyalty and penalizing opposition.

The controversial national park at Mount Scopus was enthusiastically promoted by the municipality. East Jerusalem Arabs see the park as an attempt to choke the natural growth of their neighborhoods; a wave of house demolition orders in East Jerusalem has followed the elections as well.

Barkat’s efforts in his first term to close gaps between west and east Jerusalem and solve some of the problems in the east seem eclipsed now by the mounting tensions. Voting stations in East Jerusalem were even emptier than usual, suggesting little faith in the municipality.

This could impair Barkat’s ability to implement his plans if quiet is not maintained. Recent violent incidents along the seam neighborhoods seem to bode ill in this respect.

Reuters