Nir Barkat says he doesn’t know who’ll be running against him for the Jerusalem mayoralty in October, but he’s confident he can defeat all-comers. That’s because, he says, he’s turned the city round — economically, educationally, culturally, and even politically — reducing tensions between different sectors, and gradually impressing upon all residents of the city, emphatically including East Jerusalemites, that he seeks to improve the quality of life for all.

Still, he cautions, the renaissance of Israel’s capital is a work-in-progress, and it would be a dreadful retrograde step if he was not re-elected to complete it. “We want to put a lot of gas on the pedal. For me, the next term is crucial,” he says. “Don’t stop the momentum. Let us continue the positive momentum,” he urges.

In this interview, conducted to coincide with Wednesday’s Jerusalem Day, Barkat sets out his vision for Jerusalem both ideologically and at street level. Part of the conversation focuses on the nuts and bolts of building licenses and Sabbath business laws; much of it revolves around the mayor’s overall philosophy, which stands starkly at odds with the international community’s default attitude to Jerusalem and its future. As earnest as ever, and unusually candid, Barkat states flatly that he’s right and the world is foolish, hypocritical and plain wrong.

The following is the (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation, in his office on the sixth floor of City Hall in Safra Square:

What time do you start work each day?

I usually wake up around 6-6:30, I have a coffee with my wife, take the dog out. In some cases I run to the municipality… I use the time before the 8 o’clock first meeting for phone calls and other stuff. I work till midnight, sometimes 1 o’clock.

Five days a week? What about Shabbat?

On Friday I try to use the majority of the time for friends and family. I enjoy Shabbat a lot. Shabbat’s a great invention. Saturday night, it depends. I work sometimes.

You have three daughters?

Two in the army and one about to go in the army. One is an officer in the 8200 (technology intelligence unit) and the other is in the air force, working on flight simulators. The third is going to be recruited in about a year.

You face elections later this year. I find it amazing that people complain about the city all the time but they don’t bother to vote on election day.

No, the turnout (in November 2008) was quite high — about 65%. That’s comparable to the national elections.

Nir Barkat takes over as Jerusalem's mayor from Uri Lupolianski, December 3, 2008. (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Nir Barkat takes over as Jerusalem’s mayor from Uri Lupolianski, December 3, 2008. (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Demographics were against you in 2008 and maybe they’re even more difficult this time because of the mix of the sectors here, and the big ultra-Orthodox turnout.

It’s complicated. There are all kinds of election themes. I am focusing on what’s the right thing to do for the city, for the benefit of all sectors, a holistic approach. Let’s make sure we can create a win-win deal rather than one on the account of the other. That philosophy resonates quite well with the different sectors. You can see that there’s an increase in satisfaction (with life in the city) in all of the major sectors of Jerusalem — among the Zionists, the Orthodox and the non-Jewish (Jerusalemites).

When you look at the macro picture, Jerusalem is heading in the right direction. We know the public feels this. Friction among the different sectors has decreased. In the areas I define as my goals – cultural tourism, sports, the economy, education – you see a nice increase, which contributes to the improvement in the quality of life. All sectors are saying, ‘Wait a minute. Actually the city’s moving in the right direction. Why change?’ It’s not about, ‘Is the mayor similar to me or not?’ The challenge is, ‘Is the mayor doing a good job? Is the city progressing?’ And the answer to that is much more yes than no.

What’s the latest demographic breakdown of the city?

Well, about 35% of the population is Arab — about 33% Muslim and 2% Christian. And then from the remaining 65%, you have about 22% ultra-Orthodox and 43% Zionist.

Among younger Jerusalemites, the ultra-Orthodox component is growing. What do we see Jerusalem becoming?

It depends on who stays, who migrates in, who migrates out. This year the majority of the people leaving the city are ultra-Orthodox. There are cities that have more affordable housing for them. There is a natural migration because the city cannot keep all of its residents, because there is such strong natural growth…

In 20, 30, 40 years, it’s gonna be a city of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs?

I’m saying that’s not the case. Look at the number of kids in the education system, on the Zionist side. With my predecessor (Uri Lupolianski), the state education system shrunk in absolute numbers 12%. That’s a big number, in five and a half years. The state religious education system shrunk in absolute numbers 7%. Since the beginning of my term, we’re almost 2% plus in the state system and 4% plus in the state religious system. That (represents) a huge, huge shift in migration. Rather than closing schools and giving up (many) schools (from the state system) to the ultra-Orthodox, maybe you had one, two, three schools change hands, but we’re building new schools for the state and state religious (systems). That’s a huge change in trend, which I intend to maintain.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat greets children at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev as he takes part in Good Deeds Day, March 5, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat greets children at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev as he takes part in Good Deeds Day, March 5, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There is room for the Zionist community to grow, there is room for the non-Jewish community of course, and of course for the ultra-Orthodox. We need to maintain a balance between the sectors. That’s very important for Jerusalem. We also want the Zionist community to stick around and lift its head.

Where can you build for the Zionist sector in the city? Where are you building houses?

For people to stay, there are four parameters: Jobs are the number one reason why people migrate out, and today Jerusalem is very bullish in its economy. We’ve doubled the number of jobs in Jerusalem in the last three years. From 5,000 average, in the last term, we’re now at 10,000 new jobs every year.

Then comes quality of life. We’re building the largest sports complex (next to Teddy Stadium in Malha). We’re building two or three areas – Cinema City, the Tahana (the old train station), Sherover. We are dramatically improving the city’s parks. The residents feel it.

We’ve introduced a dramatic amount of culture to the city – street parties, light and music festivals, the Jerusalem Marathon, Formula One – major projects. We surpassed Tel Aviv and Haifa in internal tourism last summer. And this summer is going to be much richer. The Maccabiah games are coming to town…

The goal is to enable people who come to study, at Hebrew University or in the colleges, to stay. And there we’ve made a big difference.

The third element (that keeps people in the city) is the quality of education. There, too, we made a major shift for the better.

And the fourth is housing, affordable housing. Here, we totally depend on the government — not only for the number of new apartments in Jerusalem, but also for the price. The cost of housing is a national issue; it goes up and down all over the country, depending on the number of new apartments available nationwide. I hope that with a new minister of housing, they will put many more apartments onto the market in the coming years.

In which areas is there space to build?

We’re talking about expansion of current neighborhoods. In Gilo, Givat Mesua… We can hit the target of creating 50,000 more apartments over the next 10-20 years.

To raise the city’s population from today’s 800,000 to one million?

Yes. It has to be done while developing areas for business and industry. This is another thing I’m very proud of. We’ve outlined a new business district at the entrance to the city which will enable us to build 13 towers of 35 stories. And with the expansion of the (nearby) government (office) areas, that’s 1.1 million square meters of office space, culture, hotels, that can employ about 40,000 people.

‘The city went backwards for 15 years. It moved away from its potential… after Teddy’

What’s the time scale?

We will see the first towers in the next five years, and it will complete itself in the next seven to eight.

It would therefore be tragic if you lose the elections, or all the plans carry on and it doesn’t matter who the mayor is?

It wouldn’t be good for the city. The team, the drive, the commitment, I believe, are key to getting all this done. You change teams, and things can go backwards. The city went backwards for 15 years. It moved away from its potential.

In which years?

Unfortunately after Teddy (Kollek, mayor from 1965-93) left the city, it went into quite a negative spiral.

You’re saying the Ehud Olmert-Uri Lupolianski years?

Yes.

Because all the things you started could have been started then?

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.

And it’s no longer the poorest city?

It could still be, but there have been huge changes. We’ve turned around the city. Look at practically all the major parameters. Look at our budget. It’s been growing in the last four years from year to year: 8%, 8%, 8%, 10%. Look at the number of cranes in the air. Investment in the city, in infrastructure, moved from half a billion shekels to 1.2 billion shekels a year. And those numbers will dramatically increase in the near future.

We’ve won trust. 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. Investments are going up. The young population, they’re much happier in the city. A lot of them see their future in the city. They’re seeking better jobs. Changing the public mood on the city is crucial.

Look, I work for a shekel a year. And the whole dynamic around public officials and the professionals in the city is very, very different these days. People understand that the city’s managed differently. I’m very happy with the ethics.

Now, that’s a lot about leadership. It’s a lot about gaining trust that indeed Jerusalem is heading in the right direction — with the mayor and the other people around, with the strong back-up that I basically get from (Prime Minister) Netanyahu personally and his government. The private sector believes it’s good to invest. Philanthropy capital is flowing in. There’s a belief that philanthropic investments in Jerusalem make a difference and get a very strong return.

Are there more Holyland real estate scandals yet to come out, that you’ve come across?

Nothing that I know of. I’m not aware of anything of that or any other magnitude. Look, I work for a shekel a year. And 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.

You have some tests ahead now. For example, the new Hatahana train station complex, which is meant to be open on Shabbat…

Some of the restaurants declared that they want to be open on Shabbat.

Are you sure you’re going to be able to do that? There have been some premises that have been intimidated into closing, downtown for example.

The status quo in Jerusalem as I define it, and believe in it, is that there’s no public transport, there’s no commerce on the Jewish side of the city on Shabbat. There are restaurants and places of entertainment that are open on Shabbat. There always was, there is and there always will be, because there are other people, not only ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox people, in the city. The challenge is to find coexistence.

The status quo in my definition is also that nobody gets everything his way. There’s got to be some compromise. The public areas are closed on Shabbat. The private areas make a decision. By law we cannot influence them.

An inside view of the train station, still under construction (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

An inside view of the train station, still under construction (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

If some of the restaurant owners in the new train station complex would like to have a kosher restaurant and be closed on Shabbat, it’s their decision. If others don’t, it’s their decision. Some of the restaurants moved from one part of the city to the train station. They were open on Shabbat in the center of the city, and they moved to another part of the city. It’s part of the status quo. And my expectation is that everyone respect the status quo.

Which you extend to the Western Wall, where you say the status quo is that it is Orthodox-controlled. You back a situation where the Women of the Wall are not allowed to pray in prayer shawls and read from Torah scrolls and so on.

They can today. They can go to the Davidson Center (adjacent to the Western Wall) and do that today.

The courts seem to be saying that they can do that at the Western Wall now.

It’s not a matter of law. The status quo is not necessarily what is allowed or not allowed by law. The status quo is much more complicated than that. How do you coexist in the city? 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.

Anat Hoffman of the Women of the Wall holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Anat Hoffman of the Women of the Wall holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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?

The counter-argument is that in the last few years the Western Wall, which had a less Orthodox atmosphere, became (more Orthodox). It’s now a place where a couple engaged in a fairly platonic kiss in the Western Wall Plaza get approached and told they’re not allowed to kiss here.

Then that would be out of line. I wouldn’t agree with that. The Western Wall has 10 million (visitors) a year. In the next few years it will scale to 20 million visitors a year.

It’s a place where everyone should feel comfortable.

I agree. Things are not black and white. In Jerusalem, especially, if you think in black and white, you may think you’re right but it’s not smart. I’m not trying to argue with people about their full rights, or the full law. It’s not just about being right. It’s about being smart and right.

Let’s switch from that to West Jerusalem-East Jerusalem issues. It seems to me that your philosophy is to try to unify the city as much as possible, bring harmony to the city, give East Jerusalem Arabs a stake in the city… But that’s not realistic. Israel is never going to be able to make peace with the Palestinians while maintaining sovereignty throughout Jerusalem, and therefore your vision, if there is to be a political accommodation, is destined to fail.

I disagree with you. I keep on saying to people, to better understand the future of the city, you have to understand what happened here when Jerusalem was functional for a thousand years. When Jews came to the Land of Israel, each tribe had a piece of the territory, except Jerusalem. It was not divided among the tribes. For a thousand years, it was managed as a city that all people came to, and they felt, ‘Wow, the city belongs to me as much as it belongs to the other tribes.’ And Jews and non-Jews alike that used to come to Jerusalem felt respect… for people different from them.

The Arab residents (of Jerusalem) are looking around. They’re looking at countries around us in the Middle East. Nothing to write home about

It’s sort of the foundation of modern democracy – where different people were equally accepted into the gates of Jerusalem. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great idea for all tribes or all peoples around the world. But when something was successful in Jerusalem, by definition it’s accepted by all tribes, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Jerusalem had a role as a united city, whole, not divided into tribes. That is the DNA we have to develop because nothing else will ever work. The city has to work for all sectors. By definition, that DNA cannot be divided.

I’ll give you another perspective. Not one city in the world that was ever divided stayed functional. Now, the fact that there’s lots of pressure, that people think that, as you said…

That as long as Israel insists on sovereignty throughout the city, there’s no chance for a peace…

I totally disagree. That kind of thinking will get us nowhere. It will get us to a dead end, to a bad deal that will fall apart. And I prefer not to do a deal, if it’s a bad deal.

The Arab residents (of Jerusalem) are looking around. They’re looking at countries around us in the Middle East. Nothing to write home about. Egypt is not a role model for them, neither is Syria, nor Iraq, nor Iran, nor Lebanon, nor Gaza. They look at the Arab Israelis and in spite of all the challenges we have in Israel, by far they prefer to be part of Jerusalem than not. The vast majority of the Arab residents in Jerusalem do not want the city divided. The vast majority of them, if God forbid anybody imposes a division on the city, they will move to the west side. The quality of life in Jerusalem is increasing at a dramatic pace. Jobs, the quality of medicine, the school system — we have huge improvements in the school system. I’ll just give you an example: The bagrut (Israeli matriculation). We are introducing the bagrut into the schooling system in the Arab areas. They’re opting in to the Israeli way of learning.

I don’t doubt anything that you’re saying about what ordinary people want in their hearts, but the historical precedent you cited — of all the tribes – it was nonetheless an Israeli-controlled city. Now you have 250,000 Arabs.

An Israeli-controlled city.

Their leadership – never mind what they may say privately – their leadership is not going to agree…

That’s not true. They are living as residents of Jerusalem and there is lots of local leadership that works directly with us in a huge capacity of joint work. They’re working with the municipality of Jerusalem like many of the other residents of the city.

But their ‘national leadership’ has a stated ambition, endorsed by almost all of the international community, that they would have some kind of sovereign share of Jerusalem.

Well, when you poll the residents of Jerusalem you will find that you’re wrong. You’ll find that yes, some of them see themselves as Palestinians, but they see themselves as Jerusalemites first and I don’t think there’s a contradiction between the two.

Former PM Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, November 2008. (photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)

Former PM Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, November 2008. (photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)

Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved with Jerusalem in its current municipal size, under Israeli sovereignty?

I’ll state the question differently. The challenge is what can we do with our neighbors when they realize that Jerusalem has to stay united.

Do you think of a model in which you would have a Palestinian mayor-partner or deputy mayor?

The answer is no separation of the city. One city, period.

Under sole Israeli sovereignty?

Yes.

And you think that this is not a recipe for endless conflict with the Palestinians?

‘Maybe Olmert was like others. He may have given up on the city. It was in a negative spiral. But today, thank God, the city is in a positive spiral.’

Any other idea is a theoretical, bad deal. It is a theoretical concept that I hear. In the practical world, I know, God forbid, 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.

And the Olmert idea of non-sovereign control of the Old City and dividing the city into Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled neighborhoods is a terrible mistake?

Terrible mistake.

Thank goodness Abbas turned it down?

Thank God he’s not there.

Who’s the “he”?

Olmert.

That he’s not where? In the prime minister’s office?

Yeah. I think it would have been a bad deal. And I was deeply disappointed to hear him 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. It was in a negative spiral. But today, thank God, the city is in a positive spiral.

And yet, for example, I remember I was sitting in here with you a couple of years ago and you had the whole development scheme for Silwan (an Arab neighborhood just outside the Old City walls), a very ambitious project which would have made real change on the ground…

It’s still there and it will happen.

But it didn’t happen. You were ready to go with this and people told you privately at an individual level that this (development) is fantastic for Arab residents of the city. Yet when push came to shove, even your ally at the national level, Netanyahu, had to tell you that this is not workable.

Well, there are many, many elements to the whole Silwan side. The bigger part of (developing) Silwan, I was able to move it through the municipal system with zero objection. I’m talking about the larger part of Silwan. The Gan Hamelech area, which is the smaller part of Silwan, there’s a bit of controversy. There’s no doubt in my mind, it’s the best thing for the residents. And, by the way, the controversy is from both sides. From the extreme left and the extreme right… I’m still waiting for the national government to approve the new plan because once everyone understands that it’s the right thing to do, one must go ahead and do it.

An Israeli border policeman stands guard outside the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, January, 2013. (photo credit: Tali Mayer/FLASH90)

An Israeli border policeman stands guard outside the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, January, 2013. (photo credit: Tali Mayer/FLASH90)

By the way, at the time, when I proposed the plans for Silwan, it was the beginning of the term. There’s no doubt in my mind there’s no better solution because the current solution is worse. The current quality of life of the residents, who are all breaking the law (because their homes are built illegally) is much worse. And we cannot help them until we introduce the new plan. Now the new plan doesn’t call for any eviction, everyone improves their quality of life, you bring dramatic investments into the place, you enable commerce, and all the residents stay.

That was the goal when we planned this. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s defendable, it’s right, it’s honest, it’s fair. It’s much, much better than the current situation. That’s why eventually it will happen. It is indeed for the benefit of the residents. At the beginning of the term, the trust element was missing. Now I’m telling you that even the people who objected to it in the past are now considering supporting it. They’ve been here (and said) to me, ‘Oh, we didn’t know, we thought that the intention was whatever it is.’ Now they understand that the intention is: what you see is what you get.

They thought the intention was to ‘Judaize’ the area?

Yeah. Which was not the intention. So now, when people really understand that it’s for the benefit of the residents, and that it’s a much better solution than the current situation, there is a much, much wider acceptance of the plan.

I would not be surprised if in the term of this (national) government, my next term, we will be able to bring such new innovation to some of the parts of East Jerusalem, some of the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. They deserve it. It’s just a matter of making sure they understand that it’s an honest and fair plan. We’re very close to being there.

On housing, on the land, as you say, you are dependent on the national government. And the national government is operating in a global arena where any building for Jews over the ’67 line is controversial, headline-making and potentially problematic — as when a vice-president comes to visit. Have there been major projects that have actually gone all the way through, where there is now building going on? Ramat Shlomo, for example (where the announcement of building plans during Vice President Joe Biden’s 2010 visit caused a crisis in ties with the US), has anything happened there?

First, let me challenge the fundamental statement you just said. There was a period of a few years when there was a lot of pressure from the different governments of the world to freeze building in Jerusalem. I had a few questions (for those who made that demand). I said, ‘Here are the facts: We’re building 500 classrooms (in East Jerusalem) that were below standard; those are now 500 classrooms that are the best in the city. We’re building lots of infrastructure, investing in lots of roads. And we’re starting to resolve some of the legal challenges because there’s no proof of ownership on 90% of the land in East Jerusalem. So if somebody wants to build a building, we don’t know if he owns it or not because there’s no credentials. Which is absurd, but that’s life. We resolved some of those legal issues, to enable people to get a license or at least a temporary license until we know that nobody challenges their ownership claims.

We (now) have 50,000 registered apartments in East Jerusalem (up from 39,000). We’re still in a process of registering.

And how many are there?

We guesstimate that it’s between 55-65,000. We made a big, big change on that, and there was very little negative resistance – on the contrary. We’ve given names to practically all the streets.

So, I’d ask: ‘Should we stop all that? Or God forbid, are you saying that I as mayor, when somebody comes to build, that I have to ask him if he’s a Jew or not Jew? Not to give a license to the Jews and to give a license to the Muslims or the Christians? Under which law? American law? English law?’ As mayor, I can only check if the building is legal. I’m going out of my way to enable building even in places where the registry of land is not clear. I will go out of my way to enable people to build, to enable people to register their homes. Once their home is registered with the municipality, it’s worth much more for the resident.

Now, some of the government-owned land they had to dish out only by bid – to the highest bidder. They are not allowed to ask if the people who won the bid are black or white, or Jewish or Muslim or Christian. Anybody can use a lawyer and a proxy and win a bid. Government-owned land all over the country is sold to the highest bidder.

So, I totally reject this international pressure because it’s illegal, it’s unethical. We will continue working by Israeli law, which is similar to any other law, and we will not discriminate Jews from non-Jews, for good and for bad.

Coming back to my question: Are things being built?

Two-thirds of the land in Jerusalem is privately owned. We will move as fast as possible, pending the permits that people need. On the government side, when they invite bid pieces for land, that’s where a lot of focus is. Pieces of land are being built upon. It’s slower than I would like, but faster than you think.

As for Ramat Shlomo, specifically?

The approval process goes through the municipal, and then the district, and then the national levels. Each one of these phases can be, and usually is, challenged — by residents that are not interested, by others. So a process like this takes about 10 years. Now, every time it goes through a phase, it is challenged by the world. But it’s progressing in this process. You can’t just start building. That’s the way it is. It’s not different from any other place, by the way. So building in Ramat Shlomo and building in Gilo and building in other places takes its time, and it’s progressing at the same pace as other neighborhoods in the past.

The projects that were announced when Biden was here, there’s still nobody building any of those yet?

But they’re progressing in the process.

So it’s a very long process.

Yes.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that when you say, ‘We operate according to Israeli law,’ they will tell you that any building over the ’67 line is illegal under international law.

Which building – (for) the Jews or the Arabs?

Anything which Israel does which changes the status quo on the ground. You’re a big believer in the status quo. All the expansion of neighborhoods beyond the ’67 line, they will say, is a case of you changing the status quo.

But here’s the absurdity of this, okay? If you look back on the last 20 years, the Arab population is growing, in market share, faster than the Jewish population. So, if anything, they’re wrong. If anything, the status quo is the other way around. Natural growth of a city has to be planned. The master plan that we proposed, of scaling 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. And the reality is that we’re investing and catching up with the challenges that we had in an honest and fair way. And to come and to make such statements is totally political…

When the International Criminal Court rules one day that it is illegal for Israel to be building in, choose whichever neighborhood you like, Ramat Shlomo, Gilo, Armon Hanatziv – your response to that is, ‘If that’s international law then international law is an ass, and what we’re doing is for the best interests of the residents of the city.’ Am I right?

I work under Israeli law. I work for Israel, as an Israeli, and I have 100 percent confidence as mayor of the city of Jerusalem that we’re doing the right thing for all residents. It’s not against anyone. The fact is that all residents are happier today than they were in the past. The fact is that the model we’re proposing for Jerusalem, I did not invent. It worked amazingly well for a thousand years. We’re repositioning Jerusalem to its role in the world.

‘When one criminal dies from cancer in an Israeli prison, the whole world goes crazy. When you have 50,000, 70,000 people murdered and killed in Syria, the outcry is less. That’s absurd.’

Sometimes I feel people have triple standards. Here’s where the world stands: They expect from us in Israel more than they expect from themselves. Which is fine. I accept that. They try to hold us accountable to higher ethics and standards. And I can live with that. On the other hand, they have no expectations from our Arab neighbors. When one criminal dies from cancer in an Israeli prison, the whole world goes crazy. When you have 50,000, 70,000 people murdered and killed in Syria, the outcry is less. That’s absurd.

There’s no accountability. I didn’t hear the international world come to the Arab residents of Jerusalem and demand of them to build legally, to do what they are obliged to do. I don’t hear that. So building illegally is totally okay. But for Jews to build legally, anywhere in the Holy Land, is not okay? So there’s very, very clear triple standards.

What are your thoughts on the dispute surrounding Jewish rights to pray on the Temple Mount? One might be forgiven for assuming that you would say, ‘This was recaptured, liberated by Israel in ’67. How ridiculous that this is the one place in the world where Jews are not allowed to pray?’ Is that what you think?

It is ridiculous. The status quo is ridiculous. But it’s the status quo.

And therefore, you’re fine with that.

(Sighs) No, I don’t feel comfortable with it.

You think Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.

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.

Muslim worshipers on the Temple Mount during the festival of Eid Al-Adha, October 26, 2012 (photo credit: Sleiman Khader/Flash90)

Muslim worshipers on the Temple Mount during the festival of Eid Al-Adha, October 26, 2012 (photo credit: Sleiman Khader/Flash90)

Do you have relations with the different players? I mean, are there such consultations taking place? The (relevant Muslim authorities) would be utterly resistant to the idea (of Jews praying on the Temple Mount).

I’m not involved in any of this at this point. I don’t think it’s prudent to deal with this at this point. That doesn’t mean I’m happy with it.

We didn’t talk about lots of the nice things that you should want to tell me about. Now that I’ve given you a hard time…

Well, we did talk about turning the city around… We’re making it more attractive for visitors – tourism is up, for investors, for the young population and we see the needle move from negative to positive migration of the Zionist population, which is fundamental. Now we want to put a lot of gas on the pedal. For me, the next term is crucial.

Do you know who you’re up against?

No.

Are you confident you’re gonna win?

Yes.

What would you say to people in Jerusalem…

Don’t stop the momentum. Let us continue the positive momentum. It’s Jerusalem. We have to continue the turnaround of the city. You see, once you turn it around and you lay out the foundation and infrastructure for scaling, then you have to continue that trend with a deep understanding of how to do it wisely and make it a win-win deal for all sectors. And I know how to take it to the next phase. And that next phase is crucial for all sectors of Jerusalem.

Do you feel that you inherited a city that was basically — ‘dying’ is maybe too strong — but that was wilting, and that you’ve turned it around?

Definitely. That’s why I’ve worked for a shekel a year for the last decade… It’s very important to have a minimum of another five years of this change. Don’t forget I come from the entrepreneurial high-tech sector, where scaling to the opportunity is key to success. That’s my job, my basic skills. I know how to take the turnaround we’ve started to the next phase.

Thank God we have the government, first the prime minister, practically all of the government, the private sector, and the young people of Jerusalem. A lot of local leadership all over the city, from different sectors, buying into that. You’ve got to do it in a way that decreases the tension between the different sectors. And when you look into the future, you see that some of the new businesses intend to close on Shabbat, some intend to be open on Shabbat, some are half-half. So, we’re scaling through respecting the status quo. We’re changing the city while maintaining, as much as one can, the status quo between sectors.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport on March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport on March 20, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

President Obama was recently here. What you’ve said to me today about how you see the future of Jerusalem, in terms of who controls it, is anathema to the worldview that even our closest ally stands for. You’re running against the current of international thinking, even from our closest friend.

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.

I propose a different solution, which is derived from our past. And I believe that we’re showing and demonstrating that it works – much better than any other solution they could propose. The fact that they’re saying what they’re saying doesn’t mean they’re right. And I will do everything I can, the best I can, not only to fulfill the vision I have for Jerusalem, but through doing and developing the city, to convince the rest of the world, or whoever doesn’t understand what’s going on here, that while they are thinking right and left, we’re thinking up and down. While they’re thinking in a certain format throughout these years, that format will never work.

This vision of yours does not sentence Israel to endless friction with the Arab world? Your vision of a pastoral, harmonious city doesn’t mean that we are going to be in a forever antagonistic relationship with the Arab world?

I will answer it differently. I think we should stick to our strategy and manage the conflict until there’s a window of opportunity to create peace – where our neighbors understand our strategy. You see, doing a bad deal? Better not do it.

So what would be your vision of an accommodation with the Palestinians?

Well, it would probably be in line with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s understanding of the two-state solution. But not dividing Jerusalem.

And not giving the Palestinians any share of sovereignty.

No, no, there’s no such thing. No such thing in the world.

Is there room in that vision for something next to Jerusalem, the Abu Dis kind of idea although [the Arab neighborhood of] Abu Dis is partially in Jerusalem — some kind of Palestinian sovereignty that could be considered…?

Call Ramallah “Jerusalem.”

That’s your serious position?

Change its name to Jerusalem, to northern Jerusalem, ok? Give it another name. But it’s not Jerusalem.