Nir Barkat: Don’t gamble on someone who doesn’t live and breathe the city

Nir Barkat: Don’t gamble on someone who doesn’t live and breathe the city

Says the mayor: ‘I am a Jerusalemite my entire life. For me this is the mission of my life. The residents will decide what’s good for them. Not Deri and not Liberman and not a guy from Givatayim’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, on Jaffo street in the center of Jerusalem. September 02, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, on Jaffo street in the center of Jerusalem. September 02, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Times of Israel spoke to Mayor Nir Barkat on August 5 and 6. Edited excerpts:

The Times of Israel: For the last five years you’ve been mayor of one of the world’s most complicated cities. Why do you want to be reelected?

Nir Barkat: You have to understand my motivation to understand why I’m here in the first place. I’m a Jerusalemite all my life. And while I was in hi-tech, happily ever after, doing my business and working for my home, I got engaged in philanthropy. My wife and I put a few million dollars into the education system and I got exposed to the challenges of my city: the negative migration, the poverty, the fact that Jerusalem has become one of the poorest cities of our country.

Unfortunately, poverty and education — all parameters were going in the wrong direction. When you really understand the trends that were unfolding here before I decided to become mayor, it raises a big concern. It raised a big concern for me so I decided to retire from all my business careers — that was almost 12 years ago — and ever since I’ve worked for a shekel a year for the future of the city.

I received a city with very negative trends, and within five years I’ve turned the city around. The atmosphere has changed, there’s a lot of hope. The Zionist component [of the city’s population was prevented] from shrinking… We’ve more than tripled the number of new jobs a year; there are four to five times more cultural events than five years ago. We have excellent results in education. We’ve improved the matriculation test results from below to above national average. From 25 to 40 percent of the kids are in youth movements. From 70 to 90 percent [of youngsters] enlist in the army. And the atmosphere has changed. The residents see that we haven’t left anything behind.

We’re fixing roads eight times more than in the last term. We’re up on practically every parameter. We’ve been able to bring in the government; the government believes in what we’re doing. There’s a dramatic increase in the municipal budget. Eight percent from year to year, five years in a row. It’s huge. And you see the change in the air. Basically, I’m here to take it to the next step.

In the next term, after we laid a very strong foundation — a lot of the foundation you don’t necessarily see, but you already see the first and second floor of what you want to build. And for, me it’s creating 100,000 new jobs. Bear in mind that it was 25,000 new jobs in the prior term, 50,000 this term, 100,000 next term, and up. Huge investment in infrastructure: we’re going to lay two new light rail tracks, plus two more branches, and a cable car, and we’re going to dramatically increase investment in the roads. And we’re going to continue the current trends in culture, sports, education, investment in the neighborhoods.

Nir Barkat visits at the Arena Stadium together with New York Knicks Forward Amar'e Stoudemire in Jerusalem, July 22, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nir Barkat, right, visits the construction site of Jerusalem’s Arena Stadium, together with New York Knicks Forward Amar’e Stoudemire, July 22, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the first term, I invested a lot in the big mega-projects, and now we’re going to distribute [the benefits], we’re going to invest in the neighborhoods. So for me, I came in when there were negative trends, I turned around lots of the trends in Jerusalem. No sector is left behind. The ultra-Orthodox have increased their quality of life, the Arab residents of Jerusalem and of course the Zionist component [of the population]– all have a better quality of life. And that’s what I’m committed to.

Were there any negative trends that you admit you didn’t manage to turn around? Are there issues that you wanted to improve but didn’t succeed?

Naturally, in creating new affordable housing there’s huge dependency on the national government. I would like to clear that this term. The national government did not have the right policies, not good enough policies. It’s a national problem, not only a local problem in Jerusalem. There’s no doubt in my mind, with the new minister of housing and construction and the support of the prime minister, we will be able to take the next step in creating more affordable housing in Jerusalem.

How exactly are you going to go about this? Uri Ariel is now housing and construction minister, but how will that change the situation in the capital?

For example, you have to release more apartments. If the government doesn’t put out new bids, then it’s hard to build new houses. They have to press the button and until they press the button — it takes time.

But what makes you believe that this government is going to be better than the last one in this respect?

I hope so. I can only hope so. The prior government is different from this government. I believe you need a more pluralistic approach to affordable housing, so that in the Zionist neighborhoods, the criteria include criteria relevant for the Zionist parts of the city. And you can probably use criteria for the ultra-Orthodox sector in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

The second point is that two years ago we already initiated double tax for ghost apartments. It was approved just now. But [with] double taxation for houses or homes or apartments that are empty, [you force their owners to] either put them on the market — and that helps: if from the 9,000 empty houses that exist in Jerusalem a thousand or two thousand get into the market, that’s a big deal. That will help students and others who want to rent apartments. And if [the owners don’t sell these properties], they will pay double taxes and that will go to help affordable housing. So we’ll have a pot of capital that would help young people to get affordable housing.

‘We know how to improve from year to year. We’ve done that. We will do that. There are no shortcuts in building a strong city’

Pinui-Binui [an urban renewal project] — in the next term we’re going to go big on Pinui-Binui. It was, again, stuck in politics, national and local government, and I believe we know how to resolve the challenge by agreeing on a formula that enables the entrepreneurs and investors to have their 20 percent margin up front. By doing that, we’re now enabling the process to go forward. It was not like that in the past. We had to reform, change and get approval from the national government [to use] a different model that I believe will help create tens of thousands of apartments in the next decades.

At any given moment, there are 7,000 units being built in Jerusalem, and we have actually created approximately 15,000 new apartments in this term, which is not less than in the prior term. It’s not enough; we want to move ahead, and, again, this is something that needs to be approved by national government. It has to reform the whole way they’re working in the country. Prices of apartments in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa – all over the country – go up and down together.

Critics say that in Jerusalem prices for apartments are higher than elsewhere in the country.

And it will probably stay like that, because the price for housing is not determined locally. It’s determined nationally. The price is defined by supply and demand. And as long as there is a shortage of housing all over the country – which is the case – all prices go up. If you build all over the country, supply and demand will decrease the price because people will have alternatives. I anticipate that in Jerusalem, the price in Jerusalem – because of the demand for the city, because there is only one Jerusalem – will usually stay a little bit higher, even if we double or triple the amount of apartments. It will still stay high, relative to other places in the country.

Let’s move on to a different topic. Your opponents say the city is too dirty, complaining City Hall doesn’t see to it that it is cleaned properly.

First of all, it’s cleaner. We’ve increased significantly the redoing of the roads. When the streets are clean, people keep them clean. I received 260 people cleaning streets; 80 of them were sick. So there were 180 people cleaning the streets of Jerusalem. For two years I negotiated privatization of the cleaning of the streets. And unfortunately, after two years, at the end of 2012, the Histradrut [labor union] backtracked and said no to the privatization. So I added, this year, 100 new guys to clean the streets, which is practically doubling the power. And we are indeed seeing the results. From year to year, we’re going to increase that.

Nir Barkat during a tour at the capital's waste disposal and recycling infrastructures, October 10, 2011. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Nir Barkat during a tour at the capital’s waste disposal and recycling infrastructures, October 10, 2011. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

With a budget for redoing roads, we moved from 3 million to 40 million shekels. So now we have about 12 to 15 times more roads being repaired every year. And now people are starting to see it, because it’s the second and third year in a row. People see how we’re improving.

For every shekel I have to manage the city, 25 agorot goes to welfare and exemptions that are enforced on us by the government, which is fine with me. This leaves me with 75 agorot — Tel Aviv has two and a half shekels. Haifa has two shekels. With these 75 agorot, we have to clean, invest in education, sports and culture. It’s very populist to come and say: with 75 agorot, let’s do two shekels’ worth. So we’re moving ahead with everything, with cleaning, education and culture, and we’re moving forward, investing our capital wisely, partnering with the government, with nonprofits and others and getting good bang for the buck.

I know that in the next term, by increasing the economy, it increases our budget; it increases our ability to invest in culture, education, welfare and in cleaning streets. And you have to manage a growing balanced budget; you need strong discipline to do that. We know how to improve from year to year. We have done that. We will do that. There are no shortcuts in building a strong, affordable city.

Critics are also saying that too much of the city’s budget is invested in cultural events, as opposed to funding more essential needs.

We surpassed Tel Aviv and Haifa in internal tourism. More tourists go to Jerusalem today than go to Tel Aviv and Haifa. That’s because we’re investing in improving the brand, the experience of coming to Jerusalem. The hotel industry moved from 40 to 70 percent occupancy, plus. From 10,000 hotel rooms we have 5,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline that have requested grants from the government. They would not have done that if we had not rebranded, or improved the quality of the experience of coming to Jerusalem. And you do that through strategic positioning and events.

Look at it as investments and creating positive momentum for the city that improves quality of life, tourism, our hotel industry and our culture. Now there’s a market, and all of a sudden the young students, who in the past couldn’t find a job or customers [for a new business] – now they see that Jerusalem develops opportunities. I’m an entrepreneur, now a public entrepreneur. And I see my role as developing the city to its potential. You do that through branding and through investment.

A lot of people don’t understand that there is a direct correlation between job creation and culture and tourism. We’re working according to the model of Professor Michael Porter of developing competitive advantages. Jerusalem has huge potential and advantage in creating culture next to religion — we’re the Holy City — and when we create these events, all of a sudden Jerusalem is a magnet. And it was not like that in the past.

People who don’t understand the strategy don’t understand what we’re doing. You have to understand business orientation, and you have to be a Jerusalemite to really understand that potential. Now the Jerusalem residents are very happy with the trends on Jerusalem. Poll the people and you’ll find that they’re very happy with the turnaround the city has gone through. And the people who are not from here don’t understand that. They criticize the positive, rather than applaud and say, ‘How can me do more of that?’ By the way, the budgets are practically negligible relative to the results: we have huge leverage on our investments. Huge leverage.

Can you be more specific?

Yes, for example lots of these events are done by the Ariel Company. Eventually the capital put in by the city is one fifth, one fourth, or one tenth of the actual budget developed. ‘Formula One’ [a race car showcase that took place in June] had more than a 50 million shekel budget, only 2.5 million came from the municipal budget. Not for operations, but for buying the physical barriers that we can reuse in the future. So it’s leverage not only for the Formula but for future events as well.

Formula One Scuderia Ferrari team driver Giancarlo Fisichella and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat toast ahead of the 'Formula Jerusalem - A Peace Journey' showcase (Photo credit: Flash90)
Formula One Scuderia Ferrari team driver Giancarlo Fisichella and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat toast ahead of the ‘Formula Jerusalem – A Peace Journey’ showcase (Photo credit: Flash90)

So what we got was a 280,000 people event; priceless pictures that market Jerusalem in a way that a lot of people didn’t expect — to see a Formula 1 car by the walls of the Old City is the best way to market Jerusalem to the global world. You had tens of millions of people who saw that event, if not more. This is the second most important sport in the world, after soccer.

How much is this picture worth? It’s the best branding that Jerusalem could ever have, for people who love cars. It was one of the largest events that ever happened in Israel. To see 280,000 people in two days coming to Jerusalem, happy, spending time in the city — it’s a huge investment in the city’s future.

How high are more such events on your list of priorities?

One of the highest priorities I have for the next term is 100,000 new jobs. How do you create those 100,000 new jobs? You have to make Jerusalem attractive for visitors, for investors and for young people. Branding Jerusalem the way we’re doing it – with the Marathon, and Formula, and the Festival of Lights and the City of Ice, creating Teddy Stadium – the investments we made so Jerusalem can host events of 33,000 people.

Part of it is making Jerusalem attractive. It’s exceptionally well received by the young people, it improves their quality of life. There’s a lot to do in the city, unlike in the past. It creates opportunities for businesses, so it’s part of the strategy. We’re also pursuing science and hi-tech in general. We’re building a new business district at the entrance of the city. So we’re geared to improve the quality of life and to improve the business activity. It’s part of the strategy.

Let’s talk about your competition. Is Moshe Lion endangering your reelection?

It’s awkward that somebody who is not from the city wants to come and raise the standard of the city. Ask yourself why you come here. Tell me who your friends are, I’ll tell you who you are.

What do you mean by that?

The people who officially support him: [Aryeh] Deri and [Avigdor] Liberman.

Two fine members of Knesset.

You’re naïve. The motivation is the problem here.

What’s his motivation?

Ask yourself: Why does a guy from Givatayim, who does not want to run and is pushed and convinced by Deri and Liberman — why did they come here? No other Jerusalemite has challenged me [for the mayoralty]. The reason is that the public is very happy with the change of direction in the city. People understand that I can take the city, and that I will take the city to the next phase. And not everyone wants to go forward. There are people who want to go back to where they were before.

‘Jerusalemites don’t want to gamble on someone who doesn’t know the city, who doesn’t live and breathe it’

The residents ask me: what’s he [Lion] looking for here? He doesn’t know the processes. I am a Jerusalemite my entire life. For me this is the mission of my life. The residents will decide what’s good for them. Not Deri and not Yvet [Liberman] and not a guy from Givatayim.

This is no game. There’s no doubt in my mind that the residents of Jerusalem understand why the city got turned around and how we have a much better future together when I’m the mayor of Jerusalem.

How important is it for the voters that their mayor comes from Jerusalem? Perhaps they don’t care, as long as he or she knows what they’re doing? Lion has an impressive resume after all.

The vast majority of the residents of Jerusalem understand why you need a Jerusalemite whose heart and soul is all into managing and leading Jerusalem. Jerusalemites don’t want to gamble on someone who doesn’t know the city, who doesn’t live and breathe it. There’s a big question mark on why he’s actually here. Who’s pushing you to come here? What are you interested in? Jerusalemites trust my judgment and leadership. You see it on every occasion. The residents of Jerusalem are a bit insulted by all kinds of kombinot [sly deals]. We all had enough and we want straightforward focus on the future of the city. And no gambling. This is Jerusalem, the Holy City, the City of Justice — we want to focus on that and on nothing else.

Moshe Lion is the official candidate of Likud-Beytenu. Do you have any political backing?

I have public backing. The public supports me, which in my mind is the only and most important part. With respect to backing, I think the residents of Jerusalem understand that the current trend, the national trend is that people go for leadership. They care less for national brands. The reality is that my independent party, Jerusalem Will Succeed, has six mandates in the current city council, while the Likud has one. Yisrael Beytenu has two. The reality is, there is no doubt in my mind, that in this term you’re going to see growth in my party. Because people want to enable me to better manage the city council. There’s no correlation between national brands and local parties. As a matter of fact, talent and leadership are highly recognized by the public, more than the traditional national brands.

You seemed to have a good relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why hasn’t he endorsed any candidate?

We have a good relationship. Indeed, I thank the PM for his growing support in Jerusalem in general. He likes the plans and the strategies that we proposed to the government and you see that the government is increasing its investment, from year to year, aligned with the municipal strategy, which is focused on culture, tourism, health-life sciences… Practically, you see that for most of the requests we propose to the government there is strong support from him and the government.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Nir Barkat at an award winning ceremony in Jerusalem, December 11, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Nir Barkat at an award ceremony in Jerusalem, December 11, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu has expressed this a few times: he really likes the positive trends. He’s a Jerusalemite; he’s a very committed Jerusalem person. And he likes what we’re doing. If he does or does not give us political support, you have to ask him. But the one thing that is very, very clear is that he does not support Moshe Lion.

Lion has the backing of most of the city’s Haredim. Are you reaching out to them in an effort to change their minds?

Let’s put it this way: the Haredi vote is not homogenous. It’s more heterogenous than it was before. For me, I stand my ground to propose a strategy to manage the city with a wide coalition like I did for the past five years. The fact is that I did manage — and I am managing — a wide coalition with Haredim and Zionists in Jerusalem. I believe it’s the right way to do it. My door is open for all parties; all parties are legit. And they know that I was honest and fair with all parties before, and I will be honest and fair with all parties in the future. Unlike others, I am not reliant – I don’t need the Haredi vote to win. I want to cooperate with everyone, including the Haredim, but I don’t need their vote to win the elections. It’s a big difference. Others have to rely on Haredim… [but] it’s not enough to win the race in Jerusalem. Over 40 percent of the public will vote for me, regardless of who runs against me. And we know today that I’m over 50 percent.

You know this from internal polls?

Not only internal polls. Everyone who does polls finds that. I know of three independent polls that were done in the last few weeks. They all say the same.

Let’s talk about the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the future of Jerusalem. According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, “the final status issues… are all on the table for negotiation.” How would you react if a future agreement included the division of Jerusalem?

I know that the prime minister’s heart is in the right place. What do you mean negotiate? One should say no to, God forbid, negotiation about Jerusalem. He should say no. But I trust that that’s what the prime minister will say, and is saying. There is a very strong, wide coalition in the government not to negotiate about Jerusalem. There’s a deep coalition in the Knesset and public. So I believe that every rational and emotional discussion will lead the prime minister and us as a public, and me as mayor, to say no, God forbid. The fact that people want to talk about it — fine. That’s what they should and will hear. Anything else is a bad deal. And a bad deal is worse than no deal at all.

My position is very clear: don’t negotiate Jerusalem. Period.

But the prime minister clearly agreed to negotiate about all core issues, including Jerusalem.

Kerry can say that everything is on the table, fine, and when it gets on the table, say no, period. On the table doesn’t mean that you negotiate. I mean, I’ve been in a few negotiations in my life, and I know how to say no. The prime minister is committed to Jerusalem. Both his understanding and his heart are in the right place. I trust that he will not enable a negotiation around the unity of the city.

What if Netanyahu surprises us all and changes his position on Jerusalem and actually agrees to some sort of partition?

I will do everything I can, including leading the campaign against it, if God forbid that’s needed. I don’t think it’s needed… Maybe I don’t have a vote in the government, but I will definitely raise my voice and lead a campaign against it, and for the unity of the city, as I did in my term. And I will continue doing that forever.

read more: