Analysis

Running Jerusalem Is a Treacherous Job. So Why Is the New Mayor Smiling?

Moshe Leon has a chance of being a good mayor, but he'll have to make sure he gives everyone the feeling that they have a place in the city, too

Everyone knows that “It’s sad to be / the mayor of Jerusalem,” as Yehuda Amichai’s famous poem “The Mayor” says. “It’s terrible. / How can a man be the mayor of such a city? / What will he do with it? / He’ll build and build and build. / And at night the stones of the mountains crawl down and surround the stone houses / Like wolves coming to howl at the dogs / Who have become the slaves of men.”

And Amichai’s description is true – it is a treacherous and unbearably difficult job. The pressures on the occupant of the office are incredible. It is not just the stones of the surrounding hills that want a part of the city, but also every one of the many communities that comprise it. It would seem that because of this, Moshe Leon actually has a chance of being a good mayor. He is a talented manager, he is endowed with excellent negotiating skills and is a man of patience, a sense of humor and level-headedness.

But Leon is carrying many heavy burdens that could trip him up. First of all is his complete and total dependence on the ultra-Orthodox parties, Degel Hatorah and Shas, and his political patrons ‒ Arye Dery and Avigdor Lieberman.

Another sneaky suspicion is that Leon is not “sad” enough about the burden of the job. In other words, he does not understand the full weight of the task imposed on him. The evidence lies in a collection of ridiculous promises he made during the campaign including a 200,000-shekel ($54,000) loan for every young couple and free parking, along with other actions like ignoring entire communities in the city and the launching of a cynical fake news campaign by his activists during the last few days before the election.

To succeed in his new job, Leon will have to devote attention to the big problems in Jerusalem and, at the same time, to give the feeling that everyone — including the Hasidim of Agudat Yisrael, the nonreligious, the leftists and the Palestinians – all have a place in the city, too.

The first of the big problems is East Jerusalem. The capital cannot become a normal city benefitting its residents without a deep improvement in the situation in the Arab neighborhoods of the city. Forty percent of the city’s residents live in the east part of the city, even if they are not Israeli citizens. A change for the better began in some of the neighborhoods during Nir Barkat’s term as mayor, and Leon must continue this trend and accelerate it. So far, it does not look like this issue is on his agenda.

The second serious problem is public transportation. Nothing affects the daily life of Jerusalemites more than the clogged traffic arteries of the capital and the poor service provided by public transit operators.

The third major issue is the city’s image, both among its own residents and all Israelis. If Jerusalem wraps itself in an image of a dark city of zealots controlled by reactionary forces – it will distance itself from the creative and business sectors. This is why Leon needs to rein in his Haredi partners, who will want to change the status quo regarding Shabbat, exclude women from municipal ceremonies and notice boards and even place limitations on the Gay Pride march.

The fourth major challenge is the mixed neighborhoods. Knesset member Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), who ran for mayor but withdrew her candidacy, forecast years ago that Jerusalem would have two types of Jewish neighborhoods: Haredi and mixed. This was a precise diagnosis. The challenge is not in finding a way to preserve the borders of the secular space, but in the ability to learn to live together in the same neighborhood without the nonreligious community feeling it is not welcome in its home and streets any more. This may be an impossible mission and the game in these neighborhoods is a zero-sum game – but at the very least, the mayor needs to give nonreligious residents the feeling that he cares about them.

In addition to all these problems, Leon must realize that he does not just stand at the helm of the "rock of our existence," a historic and holy city, but also at the head of a modern city of the 21st century. Jerusalem needs to develop as a city of pedestrians and cyclists, with a strong and diversified business center, flourishing cultural institutions and a healthy urban environment – and with proper dog parks. The capital must be a city with excellent services, free of corruption, and a good educational system. Most importantly, it must be a city whose mayor is proud of its cultural, religious and human diversity and views all this as a resource and not an obstacle.

Over 100,000 Jerusalemites voted for Ofer Berkovitch and many of them feel today that this vision is completely absurd in the face of the Leon era. They think Leon’s Jerusalem is everything but a city that is green, cultured, diverse and free of corruption. Leon has rightfully earned all these suspicions but fairness requires us to give him a chance to prove they are wrong.

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We can always come back to Amichai: “What does Jerusalem need? It doesn’t need a mayor  / It needs a ringmaster, whip in hand  / Who can tame prophecies, train prophets to gallop / Around and around in a circle, teach its stones to line up / In a bold and daring formation for the finish line // Later they will jump back down to the ground / To the sounds of applause and wars. // And the eye yearns toward Zion, and weeps.”

Moshe Leon celebrates his victory in Jerusalem's mayoral race, November 13, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi