Jerusalem’s outgoing Mayor Nir Barkat has been promised he will be appointed Jerusalem minister if the current holder of the position, Ze’ev Elkin, wins his bid to succeed him in Tuesday’s municipal elections, Likud sources told The Times of Israel this week.
A spokesman for Barkat denied there was such an agreement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the commitment to Barkat in a meeting earlier this month, two sources from the ruling party said, potentially allowing him to move straight from his Safra Square municipal headquarters, which he has occupied for 10 years, to a government office.
Barkat’s appointment as Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister, the full title for the role, would only take place if Elkin wins the mayoral election and vacates the position, which he holds, while also heading the Environmental Protection Ministry, they stressed.
Elkin is currently trailing in polls just behind secular candidate Ofer Berkovich, but with two other strong candidates — ultra-Orthodox Yossi Deitch and Yisrael Beytenu’s Moshe Lion — is hoping to gain enough votes to make it to a second round, in which the two leading candidates will face off.
Elkin, a senior Likud minister and a confidant of Netanyahu, threw his hat in the municipal ring two months after Barkat’s May announcement that he would not seek a third term as Jerusalem mayor and that, as many expected, he would instead run for the Knesset on the Likud party ticket.
Initially, Elkin was rumored to have sought a guarantee that he could retain his position as cabinet minister while also serving as Jerusalem mayor, if successful in the election. But in announcing his mayoral bid, he said that he was “willing to give up the position of a senior minister and member of the security cabinet for the sake of Jerusalem because Jerusalem is a challenge at a national level of the utmost importance.”
Barkat was quick to endorse Elkin, saying that, as the minister responsible for negotiating the capital’s budget, he had “fought for us in the government and is a real partner for the change that we made in Jerusalem.”
Netanyahu, however, appeared reluctant to offer Elkin his full backing, waiting nearly two months to issue an endorsement.
A spokesperson for Barkat denied that Netanyahu had made any promises to Barkat over ministerial positions. “There was no such agreement,” they told The Times of Israel.
They nonetheless insisted that “if such a promise had been made,” the fact that Netanyahu’s endorsement for Elkin came months after Barkat’s proved that it could not have come as part of a deal to ensure the mayor’s support for the Likud minister.
Elkin’s campaign likewise rejected the suggestion that Elkin may have been involved in the decision to appoint Barkat as Jerusalem minister, saying that “cabinet positions are decided on by the prime minister and the prime minister alone.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
Becoming a minister would be a significant step up for Barkat, who joined Likud in 2015 and has been toying with entering the national political ring for a number of years. He reportedly ultimately aims to run as the party’s candidate for prime minister, but has said he will not directly challenge Netanyahu, whom he has publicly endorsed a number of times in national elections.
But before the last Knesset election, rumors swirled that Netanyahu might give the Jerusalem ministry to Barkat while he was still mayor as a way to keep him from backing the rival Kulanu party. But Netanyahu eventually assigned Elkin the position — despite having promised Barkat to not entrust the office to a cabinet member other than himself.
A major in the IDF reserves who earned a fortune at the start of the Israeli high-tech boom in the 1990s, Barkat initially entered politics in a failed bid for Jerusalem mayor against ultra-Orthodox candidate Uri Lupoliansky in 2003. After serving as head of the opposition during Lupoliansky’s term, Barkat again ran as the secular candidate in the 2008 municipal elections, beating out ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush. He was reelected in 2013.
Barkat has retained relative popularity in a city often considered sharply divided between religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, as well as Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Secular residents are seen to have made some recent gains in the ongoing culture war over the city’s identity.
Barkat also gained notoriety during the ongoing terror wave, in which Jerusalem has been a prime target for attacks. In October, he called on residents to carry guns for self defense and to foil attacks.
In 2015, he made headlines when he neutralized a Palestinian attacker who had stabbed an Israeli man near city hall. A video of the incident, in which Barkat and his security guard can be seen confronting the attacker and pinning him down, was widely circulated on the Internet.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.