The Rising Star at Jerusalem City Hall

He's wired in to the highest levels of government, but it may be those ties that give Jerusalem Senior Deputy Mayor Yaakov Kahlon the liberty to place himself above partisan politics and to avoid some of the capital's thorniest problems.

When Jerusalem Senior Deputy Mayor Yaakov Kahlon drives around the city, he travels not only through space but also through time. Into the future. Every few minutes he stops in the middle of the road. The drivers behind him blow their horns, but Kahlon doesn't hear them. In the Jerusalem of 20 years from now, as he sees it, there will be no cars, honking or otherwise.

"Here is where the high-rises will be, here is the train, here another tower, here the road descends into a tunnel, and here there are two more buildings of 35 stories each," he points out as we cruise the entrance to the city, near the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

In his mind's eye, Kahlon sees the area as a combination of "the City" - a row of business towers, like London's financial district - and a new government center. And everyone will travel here by an advanced transportation system featuring trains, a light rail, express buses, innovative roadways and huge underground parking garages.

Kahlon, who up until three and a half years ago made his living as an electrical contractor, is considered today to be the strong man of the Jerusalem municipality. He is Mayor Nir Barkat's most senior and trusted partner (among six deputy mayors; he is acting mayor in Barkat's absence ), and he chairs the local planning and building committee.

By virtue of his family ties - he is the elder brother of Israel's minister of both communications and welfare, Moshe Kahlon - he is also the municipality's unofficial liaison to the government.

Kahlon was born in Givat Olga, south of Haifa, the son of a construction worker. He says that he inherited his penchant for public service from his parents, who ran a canteen for the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers. After his military service he worked for the Israel Electric Corporation, and later moved to Jerusalem to study electrical engineering. He went on to get an MBA, before opening an electrical contracting business.

Kahlon joined the Likud party to help his brother in the primary elections for Knesset, and became a central committee member, but got his own start in public service as a member of the parents' committee at the Yefe Nof School in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem quarter. That is also where he met Barkat who, like Kahlon, lives on Hameyasdim Street in the neighborhood.

When Barkat persuaded him to be his running mate in the 2008 mayoral election, Kahlon brought with him a sizable share of the Likud's political force in Jerusalem, as well as a connection to people who are today Israel's ministers and prime minister.

Kahlon says his political ambitions do not extend beyond City Hall. He also refrains from expressing strong opinions on controversial municipal issues and will always prefer to discuss the proper way to plant trees in a street rather than to issue statements about the capital's future political status (divided or united ), or about the creeping growth of the Haredi population in formerly secular neighborhoods.

Barkat and Kahlon's vision has been dubbed "the new triangle." The familiar old "triangle" of Jerusalem refers to the three streets that make up the heart of the downtown area: Jaffa Road and King George and Ben Yehuda. This triangle maintained the city economically and culturally beginning in the time of the British Mandate but collapsed in the 1990s in the wake of terrorist attacks, new shopping malls and the capital's expansion east of the Green Line.

The northern vertex of the new triangle is the proposed government and city center at the entrance to Jerusalem; the central vertex is "the historic city," including the Old City and downtown, which will be given over primarily to tourism; and the southern vertex is at Malha, the leisure and sports part of the city.

"Jerusalem is working with a master plan from 1959," Kahlon says, "that has places marked on it for tanning workshops and slaughterhouses. The city didn't know where it wanted to go - it was dragged along by developers who only wanted to increase their building rights. Now at least we know where we want to go."

On the drive past Liberty Bell Garden to the German Colony, Kahlon is oblivious to a conspicuous, unpaved parking lot. In his mind's eye he sees "a hot-air balloon, so you can go up and see the city from above." The Ottoman-era train station, along with a large multiplex cinema that is under construction in nearby Abu Tor, are meant to provide an entertainment nexus that will be open on Shabbat. It will include a Ferris wheel and a skate park, and from there a promenade with a bicycle lane that will connect directly to the Jerusalem Theater.

Kahlon does not anticipate any opposition to these plans. "In wrestling with the ultra-Orthodox, each neighborhood has to safeguard its own principles," he says.

According to Kahlon, Yehoshua Polak, the powerful ultra-Orthodox deputy to former Mayor Uri Lupolianski, was concerned about whether many Haredim live in the area of the new recreational center. "When he was told that they do not, he said that was of no interest to him whether it is open on Shabbat," Kahlon says, and adds: "My job is not to weaken the Haredim, but rather to strengthen the other groups, so they will remain here."

At the southern edge of the city, in the Malha area, after numerous delays, an enormous and sophisticated sports complex is going up, which will compete with Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv for the title of Israel's international sports arena. An Olympic-size swimming pool will be built in the vicinity. Together with the upgraded Teddy Stadium, senior municipality officials hope to see the area transformed into a mini-Olympic complex.

Downtown, matters are moving along at a slower pace. "Jerusalem was built around the idea of the walls. The whole Jerusalem thing is about self-enclosure. When they built a church, it was sealed with a wall, the same thing with a synagogue, and with the neighborhoods. You have to know how to open the walls. There's a serious mental problem here," Kahlon says.

In his vision, structures like the Generali Building, on Jaffa Road, which today houses offices of several ministries that will now relocate to the Givat Ram area, will be transformed into boutique hotels.

Kahlon: "The historic city can't take the load. You toss out two pieces of paper there and the city is filthy. You have to get all the officialdom and other uses out of there. This city has much greater meanings."

In the meantime, Jerusalemites continue to complain about problems with the light rail and the transportation system that feeds into it.

"One of the problems with the train is that the route that was built is an economic route and not a service route [because it connects residential areas with the financial and commercial centers]. The future train routes have to bring the people to the centers of employment."

Moral and criminal taint

Kahlon is also troubled by other walls, the ones that get erected as part of new housing developments. The low stone fences around gardens with tall trees have been replaced in the new projects by high alienating walls, which conceal gardens with grass and miniature cypresses. These walls threaten to alter the environment-friendly character of the city's neighborhoods.

"In the new master plan for Rehavia we prohibited fences taller than 1.2 meters and barred the handing over the front garden of the shared building to a private individual," he says. "Planning is not a private right; it is a public prerogative. From my standpoint, when you build a wall on the street you are assaulting me."

Kahlon took on the planning brief for Jerusalem after the authorities were sullied by the moral and criminal taint of having authorized the Holyland project - a massive real estate development near Malha that has since led to the indictment of a number of former senior city officials on charges of accepting bribes and other crimes.

The corruption allegations and the reverberating planning fiasco branded the system as rotten and unprofessional. One of the steps Kahlon took to begin fixing the situation was to introduce a course, the first of its kind, on morality and ethics for politicians on the local planning committee. Among the lecturers were Prof. Asa Kasher, an expert on ethics, and Prof. Eran Feitelson, whose field is environmental policy planning.

"The problem is that the political people are not professionals, but they make professional decisions," Kahlon says. "What I wanted to do with the course was to explain what our responsibility is, to the present and future generations. We are not supposed to be representing our own individual communities, we have a professional role." The course met with an enthusiastic response from the politicians and there was demand for additional lectures, he adds.

His formula for decision-making in planning is clear: "If the public doesn't benefit from something, it must not be done. If there is no direct benefit to the public from your decision - don't make it. If others benefit along the way - no problem, let them benefit, but the public good must be the greatest priority. If you have to chop down a forest to build a neighborhood, maybe the neighborhood isn't worth building," he adds.

So far Kahlon has managed to avoid serious political conflicts. His critics say that this is also his weakness. For example, one of the major plans he promoted, for resolving the housing shortage in (Arab ) East Jerusalem, was construction of hundreds of homes in the Al-Sawahreh neighborhood. When right-wing city council members threatened to torpedo the plan about a year ago, Kahlon backed down.

The plan is now on hold, but Kahlon vows that it will be approved and the neighborhood built. Other proposals of his for East Jerusalem are also up in the air: to "launder" illegal (Arab ) construction in Silwan and to expand A-Tur. Plans designed to benefit Palestinians are apparently undermined from the right, while plans aimed at tourism or building for Jews are undermined from the left.

"He doesn't make a significant contribution to strengthening the Israeli hold on eastern Jerusalem," says a right-wing councilman, Yair Gabbai, about Kahlon.

"He tries to solve problems, but he can't deal with the right wing at City Hall," says a councilman from Meretz, Meir Margalit. "When he realized that he didn't have a majority for the Sawahreh plan, he tabled it. You expect a man with his political power to act with more determination."

What does Kahlon say? "It's tougher, but we will get the plans approved. Already we have greatly increased the possibility of residential construction in East Jerusalem. The big challenge now is to provide places of employment. Currently there is no significant commercial or employment zone in the eastern part of the city."

In summing up, the senior deputy mayor says: "We have learned that Jerusalemites want to take pride in their city and they need to be given reasons to be proud. The problem is that they get homesick only when they're outside the city. Now we have to get them to miss it when they're still here, to create among them a sense of belonging."

My backyard cineplex

Ever since the multi-screen movie theater at the Malha Mall closed down, Jerusalemites have been left with just 13 active movie screens (compared to more than 30 in Tel Aviv). Two developments in the works a “Cinema City,” across from the Supreme Court, and the so-called Sherover complex, in the Abu Tor neighborhood in the city’s south will provide dozens of additional screens when they open in the next few years.

But the ultra-Orthodox members of City Hall passed a resolution two years ago barring Cinema City from operating on Shabbat. The Sherover center, for its part, is the object of a campaign against it by its neighbors in the residential quarter, who belong to the city’s secular elite, including the prime minister’s brother, Ido Netanyahu.

The neighbors are mainly protesting the increase, since the new cultural center was originally approved in the number of planned movie screens, from eight to 16. “A diverse cultural center with a cinematheque component turned into Cinema City,” they argue in the petition they filed against the plan. According to the municipality and the Sherover Foundation, which initiated the project, the changes are necessary to adapt the projected center to the culture of movie theaters in the age of Internet entertainment and home movie theaters. The neighbors also complain about problems with parking, transportation and noise, and about what they maintain were flaws in the plan’s approval process.

Eight months ago, the district appeals committee rejected their appeal, which included the claim that film is an inferior culture form. “Is the musical ‘Unquiet Night’ [based on the songs of Shlomo Artzi] a more cultured work of art than the film ‘Waltz with Bashir’”? the appeals committee challenged. The committee’s impression was that the neighbors’ complaints were motivated by “not in my backyard” considerations.

“With all due sympathy for the appellants ... they do live in the city after all, in the community, and the community needs a center like this, and just as the appellants benefit from the services of Magen David Adom, which operates out of a building that is located near Rina Cohen’s home and causes a nuisance for her, so Mrs. Cohen is entitled to enjoy the cultural center that is located near the home of the appellants,” the ruling states.

Work on the center began, but the neighbors filed an administrative petition which alleges that the municipality and the Sherover Foundation concealed essential changes in the approved plan that will transform the center from a cultural complex into a kind of commercial mall that will make their lives a misery.

Officials in Kahlon’s office are fuming. “For nine years they have been waging a battle by any means,” says an aide, Dudu Uziel. “They claim that they love the city and are fighting to keep the younger generation in Jerusalem, but their kids don’t live here, in part because there are no movie theaters in Jerusalem.” According to Uziel, the residents crossed the line when they turned to the ultra-Orthodox press in an attempt to enlist support for their protest. “It is shameful that secular residents approached the newspaper Hamodia,” he says.

Benjamin Hyman, a lawyer who represents the neighbors, says, “The municipality took up one side while neglecting the victims. They turned it from a high-quality cultural center, which the residents don’t like either, into a mass entertainment and commercial center. Nor is it reasonable to build two enormous cineplexes in the city. It is obvious that the center will fail and become even more commercial than it is [planned to be] today.”

Tomer Appelbaum
Emil Salman