Netanyahu, Mayor Barkat Reach Deal on Funding to End Jerusalem Strike

The strike, which included all municipal workers, broke out over claims by Jerusalem's mayor that the Finance Ministry was neglecting the city's needs.

Garbage is seen piled up in the streets during a three-day strike held by municipal workers in Jerusalem, January 31, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

A three-day general strike in Jerusalem was settled on Tuesday evening, with trash collection and schools expected to return to normal after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened.

In a phone conversation, Netanyahu invited Mayor Nir Barkat to Sunday’s cabinet meeting, while the Prime Minister’s Office said the two leaders would work together to try to solve all outstanding issues. Barkat thanked Netanyahu for intervening and aiming to ensure the future of Jerusalem, as he put it.

The strike had entered its third day on Tuesday, forcing kindergartens and afternoon day care programs to shut down. The city’s special-education system and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish kindergartens operated as normal. In the afternoon, the Health Ministry ordered Barkat to clear the trash from the streets, fearing a health hazard.

The decision to shut the schools was made late Monday night despite a court order forbidding such an action. The heads of the strike’s campaign headquarters, among them the chairman of the Jerusalem parents’ association, Avihai Avraham, had met with Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad, but the meeting ended inconclusively.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who holds the deputy education portfolio, announced that his Yerushalmim faction was leaving Barkat’s coalition. The announcement followed several attempts to mediate between the city and the treasury and avoid a strike in the schools.

“Jerusalem is the capital and not a bargaining chip,” Leibowitz said. “It’s impossible to come to terms with cynical political maneuvers on the backs of parents and children and at the expense of city residents.”

Barkat’s office, for its part, said the departure of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s people from the Yerushalmim faction was “totally meaningless” as the mayor still had a stable coalition at city hall. “It’s a shame that Kahlon’s activists in the city put small political interests above supporting Jerusalem,” the mayor’s office said.

“Municipal board members are united with the Histadrut, parents’ committees and community administrations in one front around the fight for Jerusalem’s future – until we ensure a budget appropriate for the capital and a reduction of the financial burden on parents.”

The strike, which included all municipal workers, broke out over claims by Barkat that the Finance Ministry was neglecting the city’s needs. The mayor demanded a special budget of 800 million shekels ($212 million) to make services for Jerusalem residents equal with the rest of Israel’s cities, as he put it.

Finance Ministry officials rejected the demand and said they were willing to allocate 525 million shekels. Ministry officials said there was no precedent for increasing a municipal budget so sharply. They also charged Barkat with failing to run the city properly, and also demanded the appointment of a special accountant to supervise the municipality.

In the afternoon, the Jerusalem District Court was to hear a lawsuit that the Finance Ministry filed against the city, accusing it of violating previous orders forbidding a shutdown of the schools.

On Monday, there were no afternoon day care classes in most schools and kindergartens.

Treasury officials claimed that the municipality had violated an order forbidding it from closing the afternoon classes.

The municipality countered that the community administrations, which are not accountable to the city, operate the afternoon classes. Yehuda Ben Yosef, chairman of the forum of chiefs community administrations, said their strike was not directly related to the municipal strike but to the fact that the Finance Ministry has delayed for five months the budget for operating the afternoon classes.

On Monday, Judge David Mintz ordered the city to move to open the afternoon classes, but the municipality had already canceled food orders for the kindergartens and schools.

Also on Monday traffic in Jerusalem was severely congested, and the light rail operated on a reduced schedule because garbage had piled up on the rails near the Mahane Yehuda market.

Demonstrating municipal workers tied up traffic around the government compound and the downtown area Monday morning, as did protest convoys by municipal garbage trucks.

The Finance Ministry and Jerusalem exchanged bitter messages throughout the day. The ministry’s director general wrote in the afternoon: “I regret that the mayor used contemptible and unjustified tactics at the expense of city residents. The court had its say a second time, and therefore I call on the mayor to stop the brutal, unnecessary and unjustified strike that hurts city residents and doesn’t help one bit.”

The municipality commented: “We regret that treasury bureaucrats specialize in agreements on paper and public relations but fail time and again to provide budgets and deliver results on the ground. While the 800-million-shekel Jerusalem grant was agreed on with the knowledge of the treasury’s director general and the finance minister, not one shekel has reached the municipality, just like the afternoon-classes budget that the treasury boasts about. The budget the Finance Ministry is proud of was never provided to the municipality and was not approved in government decisions, even though the city has been warning about this everywhere for the past five months.”