Turmoil at Jerusalem City Hall as 60 Workers Protest Against Deputy Mayor

Secular party Wake-Up Jerusalem claims move was orchestrated by Mayor Nir Barkat, even though both are part of municipal coalition

Ofer Berkovitch, with flag, leading a protest in Jerusalem in 2016.
Wake-Up Jerusalem

There was an unprecedented split between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the largest secular party in his municipal coalition last week, unofficially kick-starting the October 2018 election campaign.

On Wednesday, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch was met by 60 city employees demonstrating outside his office as he arrived to work. They were led by the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation’s Jerusalem branch, Daniel Bonfil, who blocked Berkovitch from entering his office. Bonfil says the workers came to protest Berkovitch’s harmful actions against city employees.

“What is happening is that the election has begun and city councilors are beginning to come down on the workers, asking them for things and insulting them – and I decided to put an end to it,” said Bonfil.

Berkovitch and the members of his Wake-Up Jerusalem (Hitorerut) party are convinced Bonfil was dispatched by Mayor Nir Barkat, and that the demonstration outside Berkovitch’s office was another step in a conflict between Barkat and Hitorerut – the largest nonreligious party in city hall and a senior member of Barkat’s coalition.

“I believe Barkat decided to change his strategy a few months ago, which is related to his situation among the city’s Zionist community, and out of a desire to guarantee his winning the next election and creating a partnership with his biggest opponents in the previous election, the ‘Lithuanians,’” said Berkovitch, referring to the city’s non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi community.

Relations between Barkat and Berkovitch have reportedly been shaky for a while, but it seems the turning point was the agreement reached recently between Barkat and the rabbis who lead the “Lithuanian” community.

The agreement, which was reached after lengthy talks lasting over six weeks, includes broad understandings concerning various neighborhoods in the city, especially those with a mix of ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. The agreement provides for dividing up various public buildings and schools between the different communities.

Wake-Up Jerusalem and others say the deal also has a secret political dimension, in which Barkat will receive the quiet support of the Haredim in the next municipal election, scheduled for October 30, 2018.

Berkovitch harshly criticized the agreement. “It is a bad deal that endangers the Zionist nature of the city,” he said. “It gives the Haredim an increased foothold in [mixed] neighborhoods such as Kiryat Hayovel and Gilo, pushes out the religious Zionists and harms the Sephardi Haredim – and it was done in the dark. Since it was completed, the mayor has begun a series of actions that testify to his loss of control,” Berkovitch added.

Wake-Up Jerusalem says Barkat ordered city employees not to cooperate with the party, and also ordered all city councilors to stop using the rooms in municipal buildings for political events.

A week ago, Wake-Up Jerusalem Councilwoman Einav Bar was relieved of her portfolio for promoting businesses in the city. The municipality’s legal adviser claimed Bar had acted in violation of her conflict of interest agreement and intervened in a matter concerning her husband’s business. Wake-Up Jerusalem accused Barkat of using the Histadrut, the legal adviser’s office and others to settle political accounts with the party.

At the same time, rumors are spreading that the other pluralistic faction in city hall, Jerusalemites (Yerushalmi), is on its way to rejoining Barkat’s coalition. The party left the coalition after the large municipal strike last January.

However, Jerusalemites Chairman Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz blasted Barkat for his recent moves. “A mayor who sends his workers to demonstrate against his deputy is a mayor who has gone off the tracks,” wrote Leibowitz on his Facebook page, calling on Wake-Up Jerusalem to leave the coalition.

Bonfil rejected Berkovitch’s claims, saying city councilors are sensing the election campaign has already started and are trying to exploit employees. “I will not let any politician harm the workers, it’s not connected to his fight with the mayor,” he said.

“City employees are furious with Wake-Up Jerusalem, which is stealing credit from them and humiliating them,” said a city hall source close to Barkat. The city’s legal adviser has come out against the party because of suspicions of serious conflicts of interest and using public resources for holding political events, he added.

As for claims that Barkat is using the legal adviser to attack Bar, the source called the allegation “libelous” and said the matter is now being investigated by the Interior Ministry.

As for the agreement with the ultra-Orthodox, the source said Wake-Up Jerusalem had been invited to participate in formulating the plan from the very beginning, “but they chose to avoid taking responsibility, so they could stand on the side and gather votes on Facebook instead of doing their jobs,” the source said.