Interview'The Western Wall has to be managed in an Orthodox way. That’s the status quo'

Jerusalem mayor says the city’s in the fast lane

Nir Barkat reports on his efforts to boost housing, predicts a million residents within 20 years, and says Hollywood and a Formula 1 race are on their way

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Mayor of a 'normal' city: Nir Barkat finishes the half-marathon, during the International Jerusalem Marathon in March 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Mayor of a 'normal' city: Nir Barkat finishes the half-marathon, during the International Jerusalem Marathon in March 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Last month, for the fourth year in succession, Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue hosted a public interview in which David Horovitz questioned Mayor Nir Barkat about running what we’ve come to describe as the world’s most complex city.

Hundreds came out on a rainy Saturday night and were rewarded with Barkat’s earnest update on the city — a largely encouraging overview that ranged from predictable subjects like housing and public transport, to the less familiar Jerusalem film industry and an imminent Formula One debut.

Barkat protested the failure to build a new Mughrabi bridge from the Western Wall Plaza to the Temple Mount, and he defended the Orthodox status quo at the Wall that is being challenged by the Women of the Wall.

He also focused heavily on what he said were City Hall’s determined efforts to correct years of neglect in Arab East Jerusalem, on what he described as the reversal of the decline in the proportion of secular Jerusalemites, and on the growth in tourism to the city. “We’ve convinced the national government that the brand ‘Jerusalem’ is stronger than the brand ‘Israel,'” he said. “And if you want to get tourists to Israel, you’d better focus on the brand ‘Jerusalem.’ A lot of people don’t even know that Jerusalem is in Israel. They ask me, ‘When I travel, is Jerusalem next to Israel somehow?’ ”


David Horovitz: Ahead of tonight’s event, I asked our staff at The Times of Israel, most of whom live in Jerusalem, if they had any questions for you. And they all did. Everybody had questions. And my heart dropped for you a little, because you must get these kinds of questions all the time: Why do people park on the sidewalks, why isn’t the air cleaner… that kind of thing. I’m going to ask you some of those questions later. But I had a little empathy for you when they rolled in. People care a lot about this city, and I can imagine that the minor questions are nonstop.

But let’s start with some nice stuff: your background. You are 53, married to Beverly, three daughters, two in the army. So, first of all, that two-in-the-army thing. How’s that going?

Nir Barkat: Well, first of all, let me say thank you for hosting me here, and for coming in such weather to hear me, for the fourth time. I’ll be here every year, so far as it depends on me, to answer your questions.

With respect to my daughters — one is an officer in the intelligence force. She is very happy serving in the Israeli army. My middle daughter is going to the air force. Then I have a third daughter who is in 12th grade, here in Jerusalem.

You’re up for re-election this year. When does your campaign for re-election start?

Four years ago. The night I got elected I said to my staff that they’ll be working extremely hard because to make changes in Jerusalem, you need a minimum of two terms, maybe three, and we have to prove results in the first term in order to be worthy of election in the second term. So we’ve been busy from the first day and hopefully we can convince people that Jerusalem is headed in the right direction.

Statistically, what does it take to win the mayoralty? We’re a city now of 800,000?

Yes, about 800,000 people. Last elections, the percentage of voters from the Zionist population (about 45% of the city’s population) was as high as in the ultra-Orthodox population (around 22% of the populace; the rest are Arabs), which made a difference.

When you say it was as high…

Almost 70%, which is as high as in elections for the Knesset, which is very good.

Yet people are voting for the future of their city. It amazes me that the number isn’t in the 80s or 90s [percentage].

The higher the percentages, the better.

Tell us a little bit about the vote among Jerusalem’s one-third or so Arab population. Last time, very, very low turnout?


If there was a large Arab turnout, there would be a very sizable Arab representation on the city council. It would impact the city. Do you see a likelihood of more engagement, and do you think it’s a good thing? Would you like all the eligible Arab citizens of this city to come out and vote?

I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen with the Arab vote in Jerusalem next October. It depends on many parameters. One thing I can tell you about is the investments we will be making in [East] Jerusalem: hundreds of millions of shekels in building new classrooms — 400 new classrooms in different stages — and over half-a-billion shekels committed to infrastructure and roads. We’ve finalized all the names of streets in East Jerusalem, which is a major undertaking.

Mayor Nir Barkat plays with children during a visit to a school in the city's Arab Zur Baher neighborhood last year (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Mayor Nir Barkat plays with children during a visit to a school in the city’s Arab Zur Baher neighborhood last year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

We’ve been working very closely with the local leadership — Arab residents of the different neighborhoods — and we see a shift toward cooperating with the municipality. That’s a big goal for me as a mayor, and we’ve seen more engagement in all the different neighborhoods, in all the different community councils.

We see a drop of about 15% in the last two years in crime rates in the city. Our economy is up — about 8 percent every year, year after year, in the last few years. Our budget this year — it was just approved — is 10 percent larger than last year. All these investments are creating better quality of life. East Jerusalem is one of the quietest places [security-wise]. Even during Operation Pillar of Defense [against terror targets in Gaza], and with all the challenges in the Middle East, Jerusalem is becoming quieter and quieter. It says something.

There are more Arab residents learning for the Bagrut [Israeli matriculation] rather than the Tawjihi, the Palestinian equivalent, because they realize it’s better. The Arab residents have no fear of participating and sharing and coming to our events. Parents in schools in East Jerusalem came to demonstrate that they want certain things — and they were right, by the way. The fact that they came and demonstrated in Safra Square [outside City Hall] proved to us all that they care and they see us as an address.

It’s easier to serve people when they have local leadership representing them. But as for what is going to happen in the next elections, I’m not going to guess.

Everybody here is interested in the physical development of the city in terms of housing – where homes are being built, for whom they’re being built, the gulf between what the government says will be built and what actually does get built. Tell us about the Arab neighborhoods and the Jewish neighborhoods.

We have a master plan to scale Jerusalem from 800,000 people-strong to a million people in 20 years, plus/minus. We’ve defined new areas, including building a new business district at the entrance to the city, doubling the hotel rooms in the city, aggressively pursuing infrastructure for roads and public transport. And we have to add 50,000 apartments for those extra 200,000 residents.

If you don’t build for the Zionists, then our young population leaves the city because the prices go through the roof. If you don’t build for the ultra-Orthodox in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, they migrate into the Zionist neighborhoods. If you don’t build for the Arabs, they build illegally. So we have to expand all the current neighborhoods. In some places, we go high. The master plan is logical and fair to all residents.

Now, I’m always amazed that the world is coming up and saying, ‘Wait, you’re building – you’re expanding Gilo, you’re expanding Pisgat Ze’ev.’ My answer to them is, ‘This is the master plan. We are building for everyone. Is it okay to build for Arabs? Because we are enabling Arabs to build. Or must I freeze that as well? Do I freeze the infrastructure, the classrooms? Or, God forbid, are you hinting that we should ask a person his religion and if he’s Jewish we freeze them and if he’s Muslim or Christian, we give him a license?’ We’re enabling people to use their rights, as long as they work according to the law.

Unfortunately for a few years the Israeli government stuttered in releasing pieces of land owned by the government, which is about a third of the areas of Jerusalem. The rest of the potential [building area] is privately owned and there, when people come to us systematically and ask for the license, it’s not a problem at all. We’re also rezoning a couple of neighborhoods in east Jerusalem where we see big gaps between reality and the old zoning code. We’re getting all the houses in east Jerusalem registered in our system, which is a huge undertaking.

Backdropped by Jerusalem's Old City Walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with Mayor Nir Barkat following Barkat's endorsement of him, a day before the general elections. January 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Backdropped by Jerusalem’s Old City Walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with Mayor Nir Barkat following Barkat’s endorsement of him, a day before the general elections. January 21, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

We have about 160,000 apartments owned by Jews in Jerusalem. And the population is at the ratio of 2:1 Jewish to Arab, so for every two apartments owned by Jews there should, theoretically, be one owned by Arabs, or about 80,000. Yet when I came into my job four years ago, we had only 39,000 Arab-owned apartments registered. It didn’t make any sense. Tens of thousands of apartments were not registered in the municipality, and they weren’t being charged anything – no city tax, no taxes. Well, we’ve started registering apartments. We will probably finish the term with 50,000 apartments registered and we think the real total is between 55,000 and 60,000 [as opposed to 80,000] because it works a little bit differently in east Jerusalem. We are registering about two thousand every year. It makes things a lot more orderly. It’s a process. We have to name the streets, and number the houses.

The way it worked in the past was appalling. We have to deal with the neglect. That’s fundamental, for improving the quality of life in east Jerusalem.

‘The Arab residents of east Jerusalem don’t actually want to see the city divided, and they understand that they are starting to become an integral part of the united city of Jerusalem’

Some people felt good with the fact that there was neglect in east Jerusalem because it served their political strategy. (DH: This is an apparent reference to former mayor, later prime minister Ehud Olmert, who in 2008 offered to divide Jerusalem into Israeli and Palestinian areas in the cause of a peace deal with the Palestinians; Barkat endorsed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes any such division, in the recent elections.) I, as a person believing in the united city of Jerusalem, have no doubt that we have to take responsibility and improve the quality of life in east Jerusalem.

The Arab residents of east Jerusalem don’t actually want to see the city divided, and they understand that they are starting to become an integral part of the united city of Jerusalem. The more the Arab residents believe and understand that there’s no other model but a working Jerusalem as a united city, the more they see it’s not only words, it’s actions, the better.

And yet you are not naïve and you know that the international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty throughout Jerusalem. When they come to you and say you shouldn’t be building, they’re saying you are pre-judging a final status agreement. Furthermore, when you tried to do something quite ambitious in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan outside the Old City walls, to tear down illegal housing and rebuild, you were unable to get that done. The politics are so internationally traumatic and resonant that it’s actually very hard to make dramatic change, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. But that’s exactly where you need consistency and working toward a vision and not to stutter. When the international community comes to Jerusalem, my doors are always open. I just had missions upon missions of people from the European Union and of course lots of Congressmen come over. I give them the pitch, give them the vision of the city and I tell them about Jerusalem three and a half thousand years ago, when the people of Israel came to the land of Israel. Each of the tribes had a piece of land where they lived and worked, except in the city of Jerusalem. The city was not divided into tribes. All the people came to worship at the Temple, all worshipped their faith, all felt a sense of belonging.

Jews and non-Jews alike – I remind you, there were no Christians, there were no Muslims – everyone came to worship their faith. And Jerusalem was the foundation of modern democracy, where everyone was different but treated equally. And that feeling, of a city that has never been divided into tribes, is the only vision for the city of Jerusalem. It’s the only way.

You have to derive your actions from that vision of the future. So you have to open up Jerusalem for the benefit of the world, make sure all tribes feel comfortable, Jews and non-Jews alike. Enable freedom of religion, freedom of faith, mutual respect. Invest in all different sectors. Invest in the Muslims in Muslim neighborhoods their way, and in the ultra-Orthodox in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods their way, and in the Zionist population their way. It’s not either/or, it’s not a zero sum game. It is a philosophy that I did not invent. It’s the DNA of Jerusalem. Jerusalem cannot be divided. It will never function.

I explain that to everyone, and then show them what we’re actually doing on the ground, and show them that what we are doing is consistent with that strategy and vision. They leave my office thinking, and sometimes hopefully confused. At the very least they understand that we are honest and we believe in what we do.

What’s happened, on the ground, in the past year? What’s been built, in which neighborhoods?

When I came into office, the infrastructure investment budget was 500 million shekels ($134 million). It went up to 650, to 750, to 900. Today it’s 1.2 billion shekels, which we approved last week. We have a 7 billion shekel plan with the government, with the Ministry of Transportation — to add the next two light rail lines, 3 billion shekels, and to expand and upgrade roads, the other 4 billion. The government is chipping in much more money now. We’ve expanded matching funds with the lottery and private investors. We’re hopefully completing Teddy (soccer) Stadium, which is 110 million shekels, and building the new sports arena alongside it, which is 380 million shekels.

The new arena, the largest in the country, will enable us to host national and international events. I want to bring all the national and international games to the city of Jerusalem and we’re on course to do that.

We have made significant investments as I said earlier in building classrooms: 400 in Arab neighborhoods, and 400 classrooms in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Before I came into office, the notion was that every secular or national religious school that was shy of students was taken over by the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox were expanding and the municipality gave them classrooms in the different neighborhoods of Jerusalem. I stopped that. Now we’re building a significant number of classrooms within the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Except in really unique situations, we are not moving schools from the Zionist sector to the ultra-Orthodox sector, and that has enabled the Zionist sector to recover. When I was in opposition, during [predecessor Uri] Lupolianski’s term, the secular sector shrunk in absolute numbers by 12 percent.

The secular population of Jerusalem?

The number of secular kids in 1st grade to 12th grade shrunk, in absolute numbers, by 12 percent. The national religious numbers shrunk 7 percent. Since the beginning of my term, we’re now 1 percent up in the secular and 3 percent up in the national religious sectors and we expect further growth in the coming year. We’re actually turning it around.

Again, I want to bring it back to housing. We hear the government has approved hundreds, thousands of new homes, in Gilo, Givat Hamatos, Ramat Shlomo… You hear all these things, often presented by the government as a kind of punishment for the Palestinians, most recently for going to the UN. But what actually gets built?

It’s funny. Sometimes those apartments get counted many times because they need approval by various committees, and you don’t have an apartment today in Jerusalem that doesn’t get challenged at least once. It gets challenged at least once in the local committee and then it goes to the district committee, and then the national, and you will see Haaretz write an article on the same house, on the same thing, about seven or eight times. The bottom line is that we do not have enough new apartments going up every year.

‘Some housing projects were stopped because of a big debate over the criteria for affordable housing. The [outgoing housing] minister from Shas [Ariel Attias] wanted parameters that I think are wrong for Jerusalem’

Do you have a figure on new housing starts in Jerusalem?

Almost 2,000 last year for the Jewish population.

A little less than 2,000 in 2012?

Yes, and 1,500 the year before that. It’s too little. We must almost double that. Unfortunately, we have lots of dependency on the government on this. The government has to dish out [the land]. Some projects were stopped because of a big debate over the criteria for affordable housing. The [outgoing housing] minister from Shas [Ariel Attias] wanted parameters that I think are wrong for Jerusalem.

Can you elaborate?

Well, if you define eligibility for affordable housing by who is married the most years and who has three kids and up, you know who is going to get those apartments. (The ultra-Orthodox.) We challenged that…

And which parameters have prevailed?

We’re still [debating].

And what parameters do you want?

Preference for people who served in the army; some kind of eligibility mechanism for people who actually work. We have to find the right formula, the right balance, that will enable all sectors to benefit. I’m willing to have the parameters tailored to the different neighborhoods. In other words, in the Zionist neighborhoods, have them tailored to the needs of the Zionist population. In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, have them tailored to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox. When I led this discussion among all council members there was agreement between the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox that this is the path to take.

You spoke about all tribes needing to feel at ease in the city. Within the Jewish tribe, some of the questions that were sent in to me to put to you were from people who were objecting to the lack of Orthodoxy in Jerusalem. This is Jerusalem, this is the capital of the revived Jewish state. Why aren’t all roads closed on Shabbat? Why aren’t all businesses and places of entertainment closed on Shabbat? But people also wrote in complaining, why should women who are praying at the Western Wall be arrested? This is the most holy site in Judaism and our tribe should have room for diversity and mutual respect within it, and people are being carted off in police vans for praying at the Wall?

If Jerusalem did not have these conflicts, it wouldn’t be Jerusalem. You have to find the right balance, work around the status quo. Nobody in Jerusalem gets everything his way. No tribe gets everything its way. If you do get everything your way, somebody else will not get his way and will maybe leave, and that impacts on the city of Jerusalem. When the balancing act works, when you figure out the right solution for co-existence in Jerusalem, it’s huge. That’s what I understand the [quotation from Isaiah] “For the word of the Lord shall come out of Jerusalem” to mean. If it’s accepted in Jerusalem by all tribes, it’s scalable everywhere. The methodology for managing the city wisely, with all tribes, it has huge meaning for the rest of the country and probably the world.

Europe’s GDP and growth is at 1 or 2 percent, if at all. Same for the US. Israel is growing at about 4 or 4.5 percent and Jerusalem at 8 percent. People come here and they see the crime rates are going down and they ask, what’s going on here? How can this be, in the middle of the Middle East? Quite a tough neighborhood.

We have an island of sanity which is called Israel and within it, the city of Jerusalem where — look at the independent polls — people today are much happier than two years ago or four years ago or six years ago. Maybe we’re doing something right in balancing those elements. We do it with a lot of trust, making sure people realize that sometimes if the minority gets their way, the majority suffers. And vice versa.

We have 31 council members, 29 of them in the coalition. Last Thursday when we approved the budget, one was sick. Twenty-eight of 31 raised their hands to approve the budget. All the tribes — Meretz, National Union, National Religious Party, Shas, Agudat Yisrael, my party — were in there. We sometimes have really tough discussions, but eventually we find the right solution and keep that balance. Now, I make it sound simple. I think people realize it’s not that simple, but it works.

Okay, but let’s go back to that little area in the Old City which is really the center of the world. You’ve got women being arrested for praying. Right next to them you’ve got a bridge that you dare not build because the Muslim world will supposedly erupt, although you dread to think what will happen if the bridge collapses. First of all, are you not concerned that there is a creeping ultra-Orthodox-ization of the Western Wall area and, by contrast, why can’t you get the Mughrabi bridge built? Very basic and very different sensitive issues.

A general view of the wooden footbridge leading up from the Western Wall to the Temple Mount, which temporarily replaces the Mughrabi bridge (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A general view of the wooden footbridge leading up from the Western Wall to the Temple Mount, which temporarily replaces the Mughrabi bridge (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

It’s a big mistake not to build a new Mughrabi bridge. I expressed my opinion very clearly to the prime minister and whoever had to know. I pushed to make it happen. We must do it. The current bridge is appalling. It’s ugly, it’s not functional. And right next to the two most sacred places for Muslims and the Jews [in the city], you want to have something that complements and doesn’t desecrate the site. And, by the way, the new plans, approved plans, reflect the status quo that existed before the bridge collapsed. So we’re not trying to do anything but return to the status quo. The bridge as it is also decreases the women’s section of the Wall, and that creates lots of tension.

‘I know the Women of the Wall had some negative friction… The Wall has to be managed in an Orthodox way. That’s the status quo, for better and for worse’

A few years ago we had four or five million people coming to the Western Wall a year. We have about 10 million today, and we will soon enough have 20 million. Now, that creates lots of pressure. You have to scale and open up to decrease tensions. Some people want it more Orthodox; some people want it more Reform. By the way, the Western Wall doesn’t end at the bridge. On the southern part of the Western Wall it is much, much more open for people, more flexible.

Lesley Sachs, director of 'Women of the Wall,' is confronted by police for wearing a 'tallit' (prayer shawl) at the Western Wall last October (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Lesley Sachs, director of ‘Women of the Wall,’ is confronted by police for wearing a ‘tallit’ (prayer shawl) at the Western Wall last October (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It’s a challenge, I have to admit. I know that the Women of the Wall had some negative friction. It hit a lot of international press. Every time there was an incident, I’ve called the rabbi of the Wall, and sometimes some of the women responsible, into one room and got them to think and work together; maybe they can work out a solution. I try to mediate those cases as much as possible, but with the understanding that the Western Wall has to be managed in an Orthodox way. That’s the status quo, for better and for worse.

Then there’s the matter of the superficiality and the expense of the current kosher supervision of Jerusalem restaurants. Are you intervening there?

No, I am not going to intervene. There are different levels of Kashrut. I let the market work this out. I don’t think it’s my duty. I’m not a player and I don’t think I should be.

You run in the city. Several people wrote and complained about the quality of air.

Our trend is to have more and more public transport. The light rail — two more lines. We’re going to have a fast train from Tel Aviv by 2017.

How fast?

Twenty-six minutes from Tel Aviv.

To where? Where will it come to in the city?

To the central bus station.

Really, in 2017? We can write that down?

That’s what they’re telling me.

Hmm, what do you think?

Maybe 2017, 2018. It’s being dug and it’s being developed and if it takes another few months, that’s not a big deal. We have two more light rail lines. The next line comes from Gilo. It’s the ‘Green Line’ rail line, but it’s different from what people think… (A reference to the pre-’67 Green Line that divided Jerusalem.)

That’s the trouble with doing this every year. We’re going to have to come up with some new jokes.

(Barkat half-laughs.) Anyway, it starts from Gilo and goes down to Teddy Stadium and the new sports arena, and from there it goes up to the Hebrew University campus at Givat Ram, the Central Bus Station, through Bar-Ilan Street, to the other Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. I also want to take the line to the Mount of Olives, for tourism purposes.

Nir Barkat rides his bicycle down Jaffa Road, with the light rail in the background. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Nir Barkat (left) rides his bicycle down Jaffa Road, with the light rail in the background. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The second line is the Blue Line. It also starts from Gilo, goes along the Hebron Road, up Keren Hayesod, down King George (through the city center), underneath the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to Bar-Ilan Junction, and on to Har Hotzvim (industrial zone) and Ramot. Now these lines are budgeted, but rather than plan for two years and build for eight years, I prefer to plan for five-six years and build for four years [so there’s less disruption and inefficiency]. We’re deep in the planning process.

The building of the existing first line was very poorly managed [before Barkat’s time]. We’re expanding it today to Neve Yaakov and to Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem, in a way which takes a little bit longer, but is not as disruptive.

When we have all this very effective public transportation running, that will dramatically decrease the air pollution in the city. It will also dramatically improve the transport in the city.

Here are some another complaints people wrote in about. A man who runs a picture frame business in Baka, and there’s nowhere for people to park. It’s hurting his business. A lot of complaints here, like every year, that people park on the sidewalks, there’s nowhere to park, uneven sidewalks…

There’s only one solution: effective public transportation. Nothing else will work. We can’t create parking lots in mid-air. You can’t dig underneath the houses. And if you want to scale to 10 million tourists a year, which is my goal, you have to have very effective public transport and we’re investing billions of shekels in it.

How much did Pillar of Defense impact tourism? How much damage is caused by “price tag” attacks (of vandalism by extremists on non-Jewish targets, in ostensible revenge for government actions against settlers)? Do you get the Christian leaders in this city coming to you to protest?

Let’s start with the vision and the goal of 10 million tourists. I set that goal when we were getting about 2 million tourists a year. This year we’re running at almost 4 million; in spite of Pillar of Defense we broke records in 2012. If we look at the numbers for 2013, they look, hopefully, better than last year. We’ve been working very hard in marketing and sales of the city of Jerusalem.

We’ve convinced the national government that the brand “Jerusalem” is stronger than the brand “Israel.” And if you want to get tourists to Israel, you’d better focus on the brand Jerusalem. A lot of people don’t even know that Jerusalem is in Israel. They ask me, when I travel, is Jerusalem next to Israel somehow?

I’ll give you a good example of how we do marketing and sales, which is to Russian-speaking countries. In 2006 there were about 20,000 tourists from Russian-speaking countries. In 2009-’10, if I’m not mistaken, the visas were lifted and this year we had half-a-million Russian-speaking tourists come to Jerusalem. We went from one plane a week to six planes a day. When you walk the streets of the Old City, you hear so many people speaking Russian.

Now, if we did it with Russian-speakers, why can’t we do it with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world? For sure we can.

We are also now focusing on conventions. I would like to make Jerusalem, in the next three or four years, one of the top 50 cities in the world as a destination for conventions. We were there in the past, by the way. In Teddy Kollek’s time, before the intifadas, Jerusalem was up there in the top 20. We’ve got to expand the convention hall, work very hard at infrastructure, and market Jerusalem, with a sales force to get more and more of those conventions to come here.

Then there’s the Jerusalem Marathon, which just got elected in a women’s running magazine as one of the top 10 spring races in the world. The marathon is not just about having a few thousand people come to Jerusalem. When word gets around that Jerusalem has a marathon that goes in and out of the Old City, it sends a message that our city is normal. It’s the best way to market Jerusalem. With the Festival of Light in all the quarters of the Old City, we had 300,000 people come last year and no [violent] incidents reported. All the Arabs are waiting for the next year. In the Muslim Quarter, they’re working with us: How can we get more traffic to their areas?

All this sends out a message that, Wow, you know, Jerusalem is open for business. Hopefully, we are going to have a Formula 1 race this summer…


We’ll announce it…

I thought that’s how we drove anyway, but, okay, bring in the professionals.

And the ice festival and the Balabasta (festival in the Mahaneh Yehuda market), these new developments are showing the best of the city. They are complementing the city, they are not creating negative friction in the city.

This past summer we surpassed Tel Aviv and Haifa in incoming local tourism. We had more Israeli tourists coming to Jerusalem than Haifa and the center of the country. Hotel occupancy exceeded 70%, which is very high.

My role is being a market maker — pushing and creating the demand, creating all these new ideas, and helping the hotel industry, the private sector, scale to those opportunities. Thank God, it’s going well. Hopefully we will continue that growth. It changes the atmosphere in Jerusalem, it makes it more attractive for the young population, for investors and for visitors.

Are there tourists coming from countries that would surprise us?

Well, the huge jump from the Russian-speaking countries was a big surprise. About three months ago I met the mayor of Moscow and I met some of the leadership of Russia. They find Israel intriguing. They find Jerusalem fascinating. They hear from all the tourists going back home to Russia, to Moscow, that they had an amazing experience, spiritually, religiously and culturally. I also see many people coming from the Far East — India and China and Japan.

Then again, we have to make Jerusalem more attractive for Jews all around the world, connect them more deeply. We must engage Jewish young people around the world. We have to follow up on the Masa and Birthright programs.

‘In the last four years, we’ve developed more films and TV series than in the previous 60 years. And there are some things in the pipeline that will stun all of us. I’m talking about international top-tier stuff’

One of the best ways to get people to Jerusalem is to create great opportunities. I come from the private sector, as you know. My profession is business development and it is extremely important for us in Jerusalem to develop new jobs. I’ve been working with Professor Michael Porter, from Harvard Business School, who is one of the leading people in the world in competitive strategies. He’s been working pro bono with me for eight years. I actually gave him a key to the city. He helped me figure out the business development model for Jerusalem.

The first driver is cultural tourism — connecting culture to tourism. Culture feeds tourism, and it’s fed from tourism. That strategy is working very well. The second business cluster is health life sciences, and we’re going to see some really nice progress there as well.

Then there’s the film production business — a huge upside for Jerusalem. In the last four years, we’ve developed more films and TV series than in the previous 60 years. And there are some things in the pipeline that will stun all of us. I’m talking about international top-tier stuff to be shown or produced in Jerusalem.

What do you mean, that we’re going to have Hollywood blockbusters with Jerusalem as the backdrop?

You will be amazed. You will be amazed. But everyone who saw (Israel-originated US TV series) “Homeland” realizes the potential. There’s more where that’s coming from. I know what I’m talking about. Those films, produced in Jerusalem, are one of the best catalysts for economic growth and for tourism and for culture.

You’ve got us all intrigued. The next James Bond movie? What?

When you see it come out, you’ll remember.

Finally, I was struck by one thing you said just now about people looking at the marathon and seeing that Jerusalem is “normal.” Normal? Jerusalem is many things, but normal is not one of them. I guess you meant normal in the best sense of the word.

Of course. I mean normal for Jerusalem.

Which is a whole definition of its own.

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