The Next Mayor of the Middle East's Powder Keg?

An Israeli minister promises blood, sweat and tears (if he isn't elected Jerusalem mayor)

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Minister Zeev Elkin.
Minister Zeev Elkin. Credit: תומר אפלבאום
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

UPDATE: Likud Minister Elkin announces bid for Jerusalem mayor

It was chilly last Saturday evening on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Plastic chairs were arranged in the parking lot of the small Jewish neighborhood of Beit Orot; the chairs for women were placed on the sidewalk, behind a low barrier. But most of the crowd of a few dozen yeshiva students and other members of the national-religious movement preferred to stand and jump up and down to help ward off the cold.

The site is not far from the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but is even closer to Augusta Victoria Hospital – built in the style of a medieval German fortress, to the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center and to Al-Makassed, a Palestinian hospital. Across the valley to the west is the Temple Mount, and further south is the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives; not far off the Palestinian neighborhood of A-Tur is visible. In short, a typical Jerusalem mélange, in the center of which is the Beit Orot settlement.

The guest of honor on the eve of Jerusalem Day was Zeev Elkin (Likud), who is both the minister of environmental protection and minister of Jerusalem affairs and heritage. Elkin gave a somewhat convoluted talk to the small audience, linking the upcoming weekly Torah portion to Jerusalem Day. Along the way he addressed some of the difficulties a believer confronts concerning the status of the Holy City in the Scriptures. For example, if Jerusalem is so sacred, why isn’t it mentioned by name in the Five Books of Moses? And how could it be that the Israelites ignored the city for hundreds of years after the land’s conquest by Joshua, not bothering to conquer it until King David arrived on the scene?

Elkin explained that the first problem (Jerusalem’s absence from the Torah) is the solution to the second one (the delayed conquest): “The answer is related to the very great singularity of Jerusalem – the city is located between two tribes, on the boundary between Judah and Benjamin. That’s the Jewish character: Judah will say that Benjamin will carry out the conquest, and Benjamin will say that Judah will do it. Each tribe waited for the other to do the work. But if the Torah had revealed that Jerusalem is the place that Hashem [God] is going to choose, then what would have happened? Each tribe would have rushed to conquer it first. Precisely because of that concealment, Jerusalem could wait for King David.”

Now Elkin, too, is out to conquer Jerusalem. He’s already announced his intention to run for mayor in the October election, but as these lines are being written, it’s not certain that he will get his wish: It depends on the decision of the prime minister and of Likud’s municipal committee. Still, given his determination and his close ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s more than likely that Elkin will be a mayoral candidate, perhaps even a leading one.

At the moment, the most realistic candidates – now that the incumbent mayor, Nir Barkat, has announced that he will not seek a third term – are three city councilmen: Moshe Lion, who has the backing of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, and seeks the support of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties; Ofer Berkovitch, head of the Hitorerut (Awakening) party, who hopes to attract members of the secular and Orthodox communities; and Yossi Daitch, deputy mayor on behalf of United Torah Judaism – combining two Haredi Ashkenazi parties – who would like to become their consensus candidate.

For his part, Elkin, 47, is counting on the city’s large Likud branch, the national party apparatus, the national-religious public, and on political alliances with the Haredim and the secular communities – as well as on his image as a shrewd politician with superb connections in the government, to bolster his chances. He is promising to remain mayor for two terms and claims the job will not be a mere springboard to realizing bigger political ambitions.

Elkin may lack natural charisma and he doesn’t seem to hanker for contact with the broad public, as the municipal contest demands. But he has does have a talent for appealing to everyone in his or her own language and does accede to requests for selfies in the street. He’s a master of detail, even if he sometimes seems to prefer sidestepping facts that aren’t consistent with the picture he tries to paint. For example, his proposition that construction in new Jewish neighborhoods will block the population increase among local Palestinians. The fact is that since 1967, Israel has built 10 new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, some of which are larger than a number of the country’s cities, and zero neighborhoods intended for Palestinians – but that hasn’t stopped their continued demographic growth: from 25 percent of the local population in 1967 to 38 percent today (the real figure is probably more than 40 percent).

As reflected in his sermon on the Mount of Olives, Elkin presents a complex, at times even confusing, picture of the city and its problems, but believes that he has the solutions. To his credit, it can be said that unlike other politicians who talk about the city, he makes an effort to be realistic, and hasn’t not succumbed to the famous Jerusalem syndrome by which politicians serve up clichés about the town as the “eternal capital” and the “pulsating heart of the Jewish people.”

Elkin’s principal argument is that Jerusalem is Israel’s “laboratory of the future.” He explains that the composition of first-grade classes in Israeli schools is very similar to the situation already existing in Jerusalem in general: one-third Arabs, one-third Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and one-third all the rest. Accordingly, he says, the problems that Jerusalem is confronting are the problems that Israel will face in another 20 or 30 years, hence both the challenge and the opportunity.

He’s a master of detail, even if he sometimes seems to prefer sidestepping facts that aren’t consistent with the picture he tries to paint.

‘Center of my life’

Lengthy conversations with Elkin give rise to the feeling that whenever he has to choose between vision and threat, between optimism and pessimism, he will opt for the less encouraging possibility: Jerusalem’s economy is in danger of collapse, the city’s secular population will become a minority and is liable to leave, the Palestinians in Jerusalem are becoming more violent, and so forth. It’s hard not to think that Elkin is shifting the scare tactics that have worked so well for his political patron, Benjamin Netanyahu, from the national to the local arena.

In the last election, in 2013, a non-Jerusalemite candidate, Moshe Lion, ran and drew a lot of fire (and lost), I remind Elkin, who lives in Kfar Eldad, a settlement in Gush Etzion, south of the capital. Why should residents vote for someone who doesn’t live here and has to move to the city in order to run?

“Jerusalem has been the center of my life since I made aliyah [in 1990, aged 19],” replies Elkin, who grew up in Soviet Ukraine, replies. “It’s the place where I’ve worked all my life. I have ties with the Hebrew University, which is one of the city’s institutional anchors – I studied there, taught there and directed a center there. The second place I worked at was the Jewish Agency, and the third place Yad Ben Zvi – both very central Jerusalem institutions. The health clinic I go to is in Gilo [a post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhood], my laundry is in Gilo, the supermarket where I shop is in Jerusalem. When I’m stuck in traffic jams, they’re created in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv. When I go to a restaurant with my wife, it’s in Jerusalem. I have a membership at the Jerusalem zoo. It’s true that I sleep elsewhere, in Gush Etzion [a bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem], which is part of Greater Jerusalem, and that’s where I pay my property tax, but the whole fabric of my life is around Jerusalem.”

This week we witnessed Jerusalem Day and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Do you understand the argument that it takes chutzpah on Israel’s part to demand that the world recognize Jerusalem as its capital when 40 percent of its residents are Palestinians who aren’t even citizens of Israel and don’t have the right to vote in Knesset elections? Maybe that’s the true vision of the future State of Israel – a binational state with a large Arab minority who have no rights?

“First of all, I have to insist on the terminology: ‘Arabs of Jerusalem.’ I also think that they are increasingly becoming a distinct identity category. In terms of numbers, I think that as a matter of course, we will end up with a ratio of 65:35, something like that, two-thirds [Jews], one-third [Arabs]. That’s approximately the direction in terms of the birth rate. There are only two reasons why that is not happening now. First, the negative migration of Jews from the city, because housing there is very expensive, and that’s something that needs to be addressed in any case. And second, the fact that they [the Palestinians] chose not to take from the State of Israel the right to vote [in local elections]. If their choice had been different, if they started to vote in the municipal elections in large numbers, for example, and at the same time accelerated the process of requesting citizenship, I imagine that Israel would have no choice but to grant them citizenship – to most of them, to those against whom there are no security or criminal charges.”

Do you know that it’s almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain citizenship? Do you know how many of those in Jerusalem obtained citizenship last year? [The data: 943 requested citizenship, 153 obtained it, most of whom submitted their request four-five years ago.]

“I know. And I know that only a small percentage receive it. That didn’t used to be the case. Once it was far easier to get citizenship. They could have requested it but didn’t; but even now, those who request it and are persistent obtain it in the end. Because it’s impossible to block [that process]. Everyone understands that in the end they will be citizens.”

So you are in favor of facilitating the granting of citizenship to Palestinians in Jerusalem? In my opinion, and not only in my opinion, if the State of Israel were to publish a notice in the East Jerusalem newspaper Al-Quds calling on people to register for citizenship, the next morning 50,000 people would be waiting in line. Are you in favor of a step like that?

“Your assumption is incorrect. What you say will be correct if they start to vote in the municipal elections. A municipal vote is far less problematic politically, and it can have a direct effect on their standard of living, yet they are still not doing it. So I think that at the moment this line of thought is theoretical. But if they do change their conception, I assume that it won’t be possible to prevent it, as a state, in the long term. I also think that the odds are high that it will happen eventually, but at the moment I don’t detect signs of it.”

You said that the Palestinians in the city are developing a new Jerusalem-Arab identity. Do you really imagine that they will forgo their Palestinian identity for a new one?

“In regard to their identity, I don’t know, but I detect a great many processes, some of them processes of integration in practical terms, on questions such as: Where do I want to live? In which of the two countries? And we see that they want Israel. Together with this, there are processes of radicalization among the younger generation, which I attribute in part to our behavior, to the fact that we have not put the education system in order, and have allowed inciteful material to enter the schools.”

Late last year, you tried to advance a plan that would transfer out of Jerusalem’s boundaries the neighborhoods that are on the other side of the security barrier [that is, Palestinian neighborhoods, in the eastern part of the city that were left outside the separation barrier and receive barely any municipal services, though they have nearly 100,000 residents]. In the meantime, it looks as though you’re not succeeding [in having it enacted]. Is this still your plan for these neighborhoods?

“It’s not currently a practical issue, because the National Security Council and the prime minister don’t intend to deal with this subject in the near future. Those neighborhoods are a separate issue that needs separate treatment. The bulk of the problems relate to what’s inside the fence, not outside it.”

Shabbat in the city

The problems Jerusalem is confronting are the problems that Israel will face in another 20 or 30 years.

The legal status of Jerusalem and the conditions of the city’s Arabs may interest the international press and diplomatic corps, but not the city’s Jewish public. The upcoming election, like earlier ones, is likely to focus, rather, on the struggle between ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular and traditional ones. The non-Haredi public senses that, despite the tenure of a secular mayor for the past decade, the Haredim are likely to augment their power in this year’s election, and that this will lead to increased pressure for closure of businesses on Shabbat and on the Haredization of additional neighborhoods.

It is in the Shabbat battle that the secular public has actually succeeded in changing the status quo and thus lessen the oppressive feeling that previously characterized Sabbath in the city. Today, there are dozens of cafes, bars, restaurants and cinemas open on Shabbat. Elkin, however, does not believe that the change is a meaningful one, and he warns the non-Orthodox public from expecting the trend to continue, since the demographic clock is working against it. He also claims that massive construction of new neighborhoods for all the population groups will ease some of the pressure Haredi groups are currently exerting on secular neighborhoods, even though it’s hard to see anything satisfying the appetite of the ultra-Orthodox public, which requires thousands of new apartments annually.

In the past week, the ultra-Orthodox on the city council have been trying to bring about the closure of the First Station [Hatahana Harishona, a cultural, restaurant and shopping compound that opened four years ago, some of whose businesses are open on Shabbat]. What’s your position on the closure of businesses on Shabbat?

“As long as I am not mayor of Jerusalem, but a cabinet minister, the last thing I need to do is to intervene in an issue that could come up for a vote in the city council and hasn’t yet been decided.”

In another few months, you’ll be asking residents to vote for you – they deserve to know where you stand.

“So, the moment I am asked, and the moment that, with God’s help, I am elected, when one issue or another comes up, I will study it in depth and consult with residents. These are very sensitive issues and you need to be attentive to the residents and have your finger on the pulse.

“I am a great advocate of the status quo. There’s a conflict here of very sensitive interests between different groups in Israeli society, and it’s very important for me to respect the status quo, even though it’s very fragile. Because I believe that any attempt to alter it by force is dangerous to Israel, if only for one simple reason – because of the demographic developments I mentioned earlier. We are in a situation in which today’s majority becomes tomorrow’s minority, and today’s minority becomes tomorrow’s majority. So, I think that it’s very important to hold fast to the status quo.”

But it is precisely in relation to the nature of Shabbat in Jerusalem that the local secular public has been victorious and has shifted the status quo. I grew up in Jerusalem, and when I was in high school there really was no place to go on Friday evenings. Today you have movie theaters and restaurants and cafes – despite the growth of the Haredi population.

“I disagree with you: I don’t think the secular public succeeded in changing the status quo. The law is very clear – it says that culture [including restaurants and entertainment] is permitted and businesses [meaning stores and the like] are prohibited [on Shabbat], and apparently in the past the population of Jerusalem simply had no need for it, because maybe it was less secular.”

Since the 1990s we’ve been battered by threats that the Haredim constitute an absolute majority of first-graders in local schools and that they are about to seize control of the city, and that Teddy Kollek [Jerusalem’s mayor from 1965 to 1993] would be the last secular mayor. In the meantime, the Haredim have indeed grown, but not in large numbers, we have had a secular mayor for the past decade, and the Haredim, with all due respect, are still far from taking over the city. You forget that there has been a huge Haredi migration from the city.

“I don’t think the Haredi migration was larger than that of other groups. But you forget some figures that need to be added to the equation. You forget the large growth of the religious-Zionist public, who did not always stand with the Haredi public in those battles, but it’s a growing population in Jerusalem and carries significant weight. So there is a certain balance here. And you also forget the immigration – more than a million people made aliyah [during the 1990s], and that’s a tremendous change. It also affected Jerusalem – possibly less than Ashdod or Netanya, but still.”

At bottom you are saying to the non-Haredi public in Jerusalem, the Orthodox and the secular population: You are in the rear guard, your political power in the city is going to decline.

“I am actually saying the opposite – that they are already living in a situation which all the others will get to: They are the vanguard before the camp. Jerusalem is the DNA of the future Israel. I also think it will be disastrous for the city if the secular or traditionalist public leave and Jerusalem will be only Haredi. And not only because of what that will do to the city economically. If we want Jerusalem to be truly the capital city and also a lot more than the capital, a city that symbolizes something very, very distinctive for the whole country and for the whole Jewish people – then you can’t turn it into a city that belongs to just one public.

“This is perhaps a pathetic statement, but there is a religious value in maintaining the secular and the traditionalist public in Jerusalem. Otherwise the whole secular public in the whole country will sever itself from Jerusalem, and that will be very bad. Accordingly, we need to see how we can arrive at formulas for living in which, on the one hand, that public will feel at home in Jerusalem, and not feel that it’s being pushed out, and on the other hand will be able to get along in the city. That’s a very big challenge.

Everyone understands that in the end Jerusalem's Arabs will be citizens.

“By the way, one of the reasons I think I am suited for this position is that I have developed, in everything I’ve done in the Knesset over the years, problem-solving skills. For example, when I managed a coalition in which there were anti-Haredi parties, Haredi parties and religious-Zionist parties, and I always tried to find solutions that were not coerced but in which each side felt that it was not losing out.”

The main problem that the secular population complains about is the Haredization of whole neighborhoods – the entry of a large Haredi population into secular areas. What’s your solution to that?

“I am in favor of opening new neighborhoods to all groups in order to reduce the pressure. The problem is that there are no projects ready for sale. Part of that has to do with the political difficulties that existed in the Obama period, and part of it is a deliberate decision by the municipality to prioritize renewal of downtown and other older areas over the building of new neighborhoods.”

But you’re bursting through an open door, as it were, into a debate that’s been going on for at least 20 years about how Jerusalem should develop, and when you say that, you also have to say where the new neighborhoods are going to be built. Are you referring to the plan put forward by architect Moshe Safdie to expand Jerusalem westward, at the expense of green areas?

“We need to discuss specific elements of expanding westward and also into areas across the Green Line.”

What do you mean? Which neighborhoods do you intend to go ahead with?

“I think it would be very wrong of me to start talking now in specific terms. I am not a planning expert, and I think that from this point of view, Jerusalem has no choice but to carry out some sort of procedure that will allow for highly accelerated planning, because otherwise the city will simply grow old [demographically]: The young families from all the different groups are incapable of meeting these [housing] prices.”

You talk about the need to build new neighborhoods to reduce the pressure of the ultra-Orthodox on the secular neighborhoods, but at the same time you support settlements in East Jerusalem within Palestinian neighborhoods, like the one we visited in Beit Orot. In those cases, aren’t the friction and problems between the residents far greater than between the Haredi and secular publics?

“You need to distinguish between the right of people to live where they want, and the question of where you do large-scale planning for the different publics. Everyone can buy a home wherever he wants. You can’t forbid a Haredi from living in a secular neighborhood. Here you’re talking about a group that wants to live on the Mount of Olives, a site that is rich with history for the Jewish people. There’s also another dimension here: that when [Jewish] groups like these are situated on the Mount of Olives, the atmosphere in the whole area [changes], there is a far greater feeling of security [for Jews] in accessing the Mount of Olives than there used to be. And I also don’t think that when a community like that comes to live in a place like this, it automatically generates friction.”

Changing reality

Is that true also of settlers in Silwan [an Arab neighborhood immediately adjacent to the Old City] and of Arab families in Pisgat Ze’ev [a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem across the 1967 border]?

“I haven’t heard about young Jewish men in Ma’aleh Zeitim [a settlement on the Mount of Olives] or in Beit Orot harassing Arab girls who pass by there. I’ve never heard of anything like that happening. I have heard the opposite about Pisgat Ze’ev. Therefore – and that, by the way, is mainly what disturbs the [Jewish] residents – entry there [of Arab families] is also accompanied by bullying, violence and threats.”

And have you heard from Palestinian residents about the way the settlers and their security guards treat them?

“I absolutely – I am strongly against symmetry on this issue, for one simple reason. I know that today an East Jerusalem Arab who sells [land] to Jews will generally try to flee. Why? Because he will be murdered. I don’t recall anyone threatening to jail or murder Jews who sell to Arabs in Pisgat Ze’ev. So, in my view, every attempt to draw a converging or parallel line is very unfair and misses the mark.”

You say that if the Jerusalem reality isn’t changed, the city will collapse economically. Why?

“Jerusalem is three cities: It’s the largest Arab city in Israel, the largest Haredi city in Israel and as a regular city [that is, if you count just the non-Haredi Jews] that’s among the largest in the country. In Israel, residents constitute a financial loss to their local governments. The budget of the local authorities is dependent on the business world, on commercial property taxes, so the situation is that the ‘regular’ third of the city has to carry the other two-thirds on its back. The result, which I don’t think residents are sufficiently aware of, is that the deficit between revenues and expenditures grow in Jerusalem by 150 million shekels [currently about $41.7 million] every year, and that’s without any improvement in the level of [municipal] services. Until now the solution was to close the gap by enlarging the governmental allocation. That’s a solution that can work for a few years, but not forever, because no government budget increases at that rate. There has to be a change in the reality.”

How do you change reality?

“The problem will not be resolved by encouraging the economic activity only in that one-third [of non-Haredi Jews], such as the project at the entrance to the city [the flagship project of outgoing Mayor Barkat to build a business [and government] center at the western entrance to Jerusalem]. That will inject between 200 and 300 million shekels [roughly $56 million to $84 million] yearly into the city coffers. But that’s a project that will take a decade to complete, and in that decade alone the deficit will increase far more than what the project will bring in. It’s essential to develop business activity among the other two groups [Haredim and Arabs]. For example, one of the things I am trying to promote is the registration of the lands in East Jerusalem. [Ninety percent of the land in East Jerusalem is not recorded in the Land Registry, because Israel froze such registration from 1967.] The land in the eastern section of the city isn’t working today, no one gets taxes from land improvement, not the city and not the state, and the residents are living in a fog because the status of their land isn’t formalized. That places them in a very difficult situation, but it doesn’t have to stop you from promoting an area of commerce and industry both in East Jerusalem and adjacent to the Haredi neighborhoods.”

But on the other hand, you’re talking about how the residential sector ratchets up the deficit while talking about massive construction of 4,000 residential units a year, which means that the deficit will only continue to grow. It sounds like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it, too.

“That question is on the mark, but you have no choice other than to build, because otherwise the city will grow old, and then it will collapse economically in any case.”

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