Setting out a resolutely uncompromising vision of continued Israeli sovereignty throughout Jerusalem, the capital’s Mayor Nir Barkat rejected any notion of Palestinian rule in any part of the city, and branded international pressure on Israel to freeze building over the pre-1967 lines in Jerusalem as “illegal.”
In arguably the most candid and forthright interview he has given since winning office in 2008, Barkat suggested that if the Palestinians wanted a capital in Jerusalem they could rename Ramallah “Jerusalem” or “northern Jerusalem.”
It was in Jerusalem’s DNA to be a united city, under sole Jewish rule, he said. “By definition, that DNA cannot be divided.” Palestinian demands for some degree of sovereignty in the city, largely endorsed by the international community as integral to an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, were unacceptable and unworkable, he said. “That kind of thinking will get us nowhere. It will get us to a dead end, to a bad deal… The answer is no separation of the city… If the world pushes us there, it’s just a matter of time before things will fall apart. It will not bring closer a resolution or a better relationship with our neighbors. There is no doubt in my mind. It will get much, much worse.”
When it was put to him that his views ran against the current of international thinking, including that espoused by US President Barack Obama, Barkat said, “Unfortunately, they’re wrong. You want to hear the truth. You want to understand what will work, not what our allies are telling you. And if anything, I would recommend to our allies to ask us and to better understand the big writing on the wall. For every complex problem, there is one simple, wrong answer. What they’re seeking is the simple, wrong answer for this region, for Jerusalem, for the Middle East and for the relationship between us and our neighbors.”
Barkat, who is up for reelection in October, vowed to maintain development across the city for the benefit of all its citizens, in the east and west of Jerusalem, and said Arab East Jerusalemites were increasingly appreciative of his leadership. His master plan, designed to raise Jerusalem’s population from 800,000 people to a million people, “is an honest and fair plan. It enables natural growth, for the Jews and non-Jews alike.”
The mayor was interviewed by The Times of Israel ahead of Wednesday’s Jerusalem Day, when Israel commemorates the reunification of the city under its control in the 1967 war. (The full transcript of the interview is posted here.) He was also speaking as US efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks intensified in the wake of Obama’s visit to the region in late March and subsequent shuttle diplomacy overseen by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
An ex-IDF paratrooper and high-tech millionaire who takes a symbolic one shekel annual salary as mayor, Barkat, 53, heads his own independent party list. He staked out positions in the interview similar to, and in some instances more hardline than, those espoused by Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Asked for his vision of an accommodation with the Palestinians, Barkat said “it would probably be in line with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s understanding of the two-state solution. But not dividing Jerusalem.” With no Palestinian sovereign role? “No, no, there’s no such thing,” he said. “No such thing in the world.”
He described former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace offer to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a “terrible mistake” and said “thank God” Olmert was no longer prime minister. “It would have been a bad deal. And I was deeply disappointed to hear [Olmert] even think this way, because I did not hear this from him in the past, when he was here [as Jerusalem mayor]. Maybe he was like others. He may have given up on the city.”
Barkat further criticized Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, his two immediate predecessors as mayor, for sending Jerusalem “backwards for 15 years.” How so? “Because in those years Jerusalem suffered from terrible negative migration. It suffered from a lack of deep understanding of how the city should exploit its potential. There were quite negative internal sectoral tensions. Jerusalem became the poorest city in the country. It was very bearish for business, and people shied away.”
He said he had turned the city round, citing eased tensions between different sectors, a boosted economy, growing investment, improved education, flourishing cultural tourism and more. Jerusalemites of all backgrounds were increasingly happy in the city, and had growing faith in its municipal leadership, he said.
“We’ve won trust,” Barkat said. “It’s a lot about trust. It’s giving hope to the young people: ‘Come, it’s worthwhile being here. Be part of the building of the city of Jerusalem. Don’t shy away.’ A lot of people gave up on the city. And now you see that things are changing. People are starting to re-believe in the future of the city… The young population, they’re much happier in the city. A lot of them see their future in the city.”
Asked whether he was aware of further possible Jerusalem scandals like the Holyland real estate affair (in which Olmert and Lupolianski are both defendants, Barkat said,”I’m not aware of anything of that or any other magnitude.” He added, in another apparent critique of his immediate predecessors: “The whole dynamic around public officials and the professionals in the city is very, very different these days — which is something I’m very proud of. I usually don’t talk about it… Deep inside, people understand that the city’s managed differently. I’m very happy with the ethics. I come from the private sector, the business world, in the high-tech sector, and the army, where ethics are high. It’s not merely about [obeying] the law. It’s also about how you ethically manage the city in an honest and fair way.”
Addressing a hot-button religious issue in the city, Barkat indicated opposition to the campaign by the Women of the Wall for the right to hold services, complete with tallitot and Torah scrolls, at the Western Wall, noting that “they can go to the [adjacent] Davidson Center… I have been to ceremonies held by Evangelical Christians, and Reform Jews, or Conservatives, at the Davidson Center, with no restrictions. Much easier. Not in the Orthodox way of Judaism,” he said.
“My feeling is, you know, to respect the ultra-Orthodox because of the importance of the Western Wall to all people, and enable a solution [for other streams of Judaism] side-by-side to the ultra-Orthodox way. Legally, if the courts define that [the Women of the Wall] can do that, well, they can. But the challenge is: What’s the right thing to do?”
As for a second prayer-related controversy, Barkat said it was “ridiculous” that Jews were not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, and that he was not “comfortable” with the status quo on this issue, but he accepted it. Asked whether Jews should be free to pray there, he said, “Well, theoretically, yeah. Why not? I mean, I don’t think the Muslims should feel that enabling Jews to pray in their holiest site should be a problem. But, again, it’s the status quo and changing the status quo is a huge challenge, especially in things like this. And I wouldn’t rush to make a change without working it out with the different players…
“I don’t think it’s prudent to deal with this at this point,” said Barkat. “That doesn’t mean I’m happy with it.”