Analysis

Jerusalem's Outgoing Mayor Never Understood the City, but Still Made It Better

Nir Barkat took action in East Jerusalem, but mostly to benefit Jewish settlers ■ He made the city more secular friendly, but sparked a crisis with the church ■ The politician in him often triumphed over the mayor

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat
Emil Salman

Nir Barkat’s 2008 victory speech, after he was elected mayor of Jerusalem for the first time, is remembered mainly for his regrettable remark on the need to dismantle the Chords Bridge at the entrance to the city. Ten years on, the bridge is still there but Jerusalem, with Barkat at the helm, has changed considerably.

Despite all the criticism of his personal and political behavior, Barkat’s Jerusalem is a well-run, and in many ways a more livable city in 2018. The downtown area is in better shape, there is more business and culture, the schools are decent and the public spaces, at least in the western part of the city, are improving.

Several developments unrelated to Barkat contributed to his success. First and foremost, with the exception of 2014-15, things were pretty quiet on the security front for most of the past decade. That allowed for the sharp increase in tourism to the city and the slow recovery of the downtown area. During Barkat’s tenure, the capital has also enjoyed unprecedented government spending, on education, transportation and projects in East Jerusalem. Barkat is reaping the fruits of the end of the construction work and launch of the light-rail service.

There’s no doubt that he is an improvement on his immediate predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupoliansky, both of whom did prison time for actions during their tenures for which Jerusalem’s residents are still paying the price. The arrest of Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman last week notwithstanding, under Barkat the massive corruption linked to city planning and development seems to have stopped. In several instances, residents’ groups were able to block ruinous development projects and advance innovative alternatives that have enhanced the areas around their homes, such as the Train Tracks Park and Gazelle Valley Park.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, right, embracing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in  February 2015.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

On the other hand, Barkat has been criticized for spending money on grandiose projects such as car races, marathons and festivals that may have given him some great photo ops but did not necessarily contribute to the welfare of residents. There have been complaints about the focus on downtown, to the detriment of outlying neighborhoods. Sanitation, especially in the Old City, remains an intractable problem that the next mayor will have to address.

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Barkat will also be remembered for at times favoring his political image over what was really best for the city and his residents. He was beholden to his right-wing supporters and thus enthusiastically supported every settlement project in East Jerusalem, no matter how destructive. He refused to evacuate Beit Yonatan, the illegal project in Silwan, and has supported numerous tourism initiatives in the Old City area promoted by right-wing organizations such as Elad and Ateret Cohanim.

A similar problem emerged with regard to relations with the ultra-Orthodox community in the city. On one hand, Barkat will be remembered for the alliance he forged between secular and religious Zionist communities that brought him victory in two election campaigns. On the other hand, his secular supporters often felt, particularly during this last term, that the mayor took them for granted and yielded to the Haredim in disputes over funding, the character of Shabbat in the city and the management of neighborhoods where both secular and Haredi families live. As a result, the pluralist Hitorerut slate left the city’s governing coalition last year, leaving Barkat heading a coalition with a significant ultra-Orthodox majority.

At the same time, Barkat’s Jerusalem is more open and welcoming to secular people than it was when he took office. Those wishing to see a movie or to sit in a café on Shabbat have far more options now than they did a decade ago.

The greatest challenge to secular-Haredi relations in the city is the continued migration of ultra-Orthodox families into historically secular areas, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame Barkat for the housing crisis in Jerusalem’s Haredi community. No mayor could solve that alone.

Ilya Melnikov

Sometimes it’s been hard to determine whether Barkat’s political behavior is rational or motivated by unchecked emotions. His fierce confrontations with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who was portrayed as an enemy of the city because of his refusal to agree to Barkat’s huge budget demands, deteriorated into personal mud-slinging and the dumping of garbage in front of treasury headquarters. Was this meant to help Jerusalem residents or to improve Barkat’s position in Likud, or was it merely a show of anger?

Barkat has also, however, demonstrated a remarkable ability to forgive and ally with old rivals. So it was with former city council opposition head Turjeman, and with Moshe Leon, his challenger in the 2013 election turned coalition partner. His supporters see this quality as a healthy capability for realpolitik, while his detractors say it points to an ideological spinelessness.

Barkat will also be remembered for trying, and failing, to solve the capital’s greatest problem: the inequality between eastern and western Jerusalem. Despite his efforts, Arab East Jerusalem is still plagued by poverty, neglect, illegal construction and a shortage of school classrooms, while anarchy reigns in areas beyond the separation barrier. During the terror upswing in 2014-15, he used the city’s authority to punish residents of East Jerusalem — and was proud of it.

In the coming decade, Jerusalem will be the first Israeli city to have over 1 million residents, and they will undoubtedly be the hardest million people in the world to govern.

Forty percent are Palestinians, with no civil rights; 30 percent are Haredi Jews, whose communities are undergoing some rapid changes; 1 percent are of various national and religious groups who are minute in number but have political power and their own religious traditions; the rest are secular, religious-Zionist and Orthodox Jews, some of whom wonder about their place in the city. Barkat will probably be remembered as a good mayor, but there remains a feeling that he never really understood the city’s rhythm and that Jerusalem for him was just a stop on the way to somewhere else.