Moshe Lion: I won’t say anything bad about Barkat, but I’ll be a better mayor

Says the challenger: What’s the difference if someone is from Givatayim? The question is whether I have the right skills to manage this city and to make the right decisions. I do

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

Former Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, seen at a press conference in Jerusalem, in July (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, seen at a press conference in Jerusalem, in July (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Times of Israel spoke to Jerusalem mayoral Moshe Lion candidate on September 23. Excerpts:

The Times of Israel: We understand that you have the support of both Likud-Yisrael Beytenu and the Haredi parties.

Moshe Lion: In principle, I do hope that the Haredi community will indeed support me. But let’s be clear. I was first invited to run for mayor by the Jerusalem branch of Likud, it’s one of the Likud’s largest branches in Israel. They turned to me because they know me and know that I know the city well — I’ve already worked 15 years in the city in various positions. They know my record, so they suggested to me to run for mayor.

After that Avigdor Liberman joined, he’s today number two on the Likud-Beytenu and the head of Yisrael Beytenu. He suggested, together with them, that I run for mayor, and that seeped also to the Haredim and other segments of the population. Not only Haredim. One has to remember that Likud Beytenu is at least 40,000 people out of the voters who come to the voting booths on election day. That’s a huge quantity — and they aren’t Haredim.

In addition, there are many secular residents that turned to me, who heard that I intend to run for mayor and turned to me from the entire political spectrum, including the Labor party and other parties. I see in recent days that the Haredim are waking up and will support me.

You’ve been to Bnei Brak [a largely ultra-Orthodox town in the country’s center].

Yes, on Friday I was in Bnei Brak at Rabbi [Aharon Leib] Shteinman and Rabbi [Haim] Kanievsky; they of course welcomed my candidacy and supported me. And I hope that I will at the end of the day receive the endorsement of the entire Haredi community – and the support of all other voters I need to go in the right direction.

How do you assess your chances today?

I estimate my chances as very high. The truth is, I also saw it that way when I started to run. And I really hope that I will be the next mayor.

And yet the polls say something different.

[Smiles.] I’m smiling because polls are a funny thing. Because we have different figures. The numbers — three percent, seven percent — all these numbers that are being bandied around by pollsters, these are not the numbers we get; we actually get much better numbers. Our polls show that if I get the support of the Haredim and the numbers, even as they are today, from the secular and national-religious community, we will certainly win.

What was your motivation to run for mayor? After all, Jerusalem has a mayor who’s quite popular.

How can you say he’s popular, but on the other hand I will win? These two don’t go together.

You don’t think that Jerusalemites are satisfied with Nir Barkat?

If there are elections, will they reflect the will of Jerusalemites? If at the end of the day I will win — that will prove it. I’ve known Jerusalem for the last 15 years. I was the director-general of the bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office and an economic adviser to the Israeli prime minister, from 1997 until 1999. At the time I was at the head of the committee of general-directors that dealt with Jerusalem…

‘After five years of Barkat, I see a total disconnect from the residents in the city – they don’t receive the service that the municipality is supposed to deliver’

During this time, I got to know very well the problems that Jerusalemites have. After that I was the chairman of Israel Railways, and for the last five years I was the chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority. In this position I again got to know Jerusalem, and I mean from the public’s perspective — what really needs to be done in Jerusalem. I worked a lot for Jerusalem, I developed the city — the metropolitan parks, the bike trail, the Old Train station, the Old City, the industrial zones, I was responsible for that.

Aren’t these achievements the mayor deserves credit for? You’re in a bit of a bind here, it seems: things improved, and if you agree that they improved…

The Jerusalem Development Authority is a body held 60 percent by the government and 40 percent by the municipality. I really allow myself to take credit for these achievements. Because these are budgets that I made sure were delivered by the government to the Jerusalem Development Authority. I started with a budget of NIS 50 million, today it is at NIS 200 million… But, surprise, surprise, somehow these issues were the only issues that advanced in the city. When I come after these five years [of Barkat’s term], I see a total disconnect from the residents in the city; the residents have not received the service that the municipality should have delivered during this time. This led me to the decision to run for mayor.

So the achievements belong to the Jerusalem Development Authority, and the failures are due to the mayor?

No, I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying one thing: the entire issue of the residents — there is a complete disconnect between the municipality and the residents. I don’t want to speak about achievements. I want to speak about the essential problem in the city. I currently don’t want to argue about who gets the credit for what I did at the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Moshe Lion visits the Mahane Yehuda market in central Jerusalem, on August 5, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Moshe Lion visits the Mahane Yehuda market in central Jerusalem, on August 5, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I am proud of what I did. There is one undeniable fact: I stood at the helm of this organization that dealt with Jerusalem’s development over the last five years. I am indeed proud of this and stand behind what I did. In the same breath I’m just saying that in those years I saw that the municipality disconnected itself from the public.

That’s an issue that I need to fix. That’s exactly the issue that I’ll deal with. I will fix the relationship between the municipality and the residents. My vision says that I need to improve the quality of life for Jerusalemites. That’s the most important thing: I want a Jerusalem in which residents get up in the morning and first of all see a clean city. It can’t be that the city is as filthy as it is today. The streets aren’t as clean as they should be, the trash cans are filled to overflowing. It’s because the issues of sanitation and city cleanliness aren’t dealt with properly.

Wasn’t that the job of Dudu Amsallem, who is now number two on your list for city council?

No, not at all. He was in charge of the city’s beautification division. That is not the same as sanitation. There all kinds of spins that are being passed around, that Dudu Amsallem was guilty. Dudu was not responsible for sanitation. Beautification is about improving the city, not about sanitation. Therefore I say that sanitation and city cleaning are problematic issues and need to be dealt with.

Also, it can’t be that a mayor allows housing prices to go up beyond the rate in the rest of the country. It’s unthinkable that you allow housing projects that exist in the city planning council and aren’t approved in good time. As mayor, you are obligated to cut through the thicket of bureaucracy. The same is true for Pinui-Binui [an urban renewal project]. Not a single neighborhood went through Pinui-Binui. There are many streets and neighborhoods that need Pinui-Binui urgently. In the last five years, I would expect that someone would take care of this. Five years went by and these things weren’t done. Not one Pinui-Binui was done in Jerusalem.

Ok, so you could say that Pinui-Binui is a long-term thing. But then there is “Tama 38,” a project to reinforce buildings against earthquakes. Only one such project was done, because only one [official] deals with this issue. They made every effort to ensure that such projects don’t go forward in the city. That’s a mistake. You need to advance these issues. If you don’t encourage construction in the city, no wonder that the price of housing goes up.

The same is true for transport and education. Education — the budget today per pupil is 5,300 shekel in Jerusalem, and around 17,000 in Tel Aviv. There is no reason why it should be a third. There is no reason for this. Whoever wants to be mayor of Jerusalem needs to act to increase these budgets.

So Barkat is a bad mayor?

I’m telling you in advance: You won’t hear a bad word from me about Barkat. I don’t say whether he is good or bad. I’m just saying one thing: I will be better than him in all those areas I mentioned.

So you will speed up bureaucratic processes that aren’t the responsibility of the mayor?

If you don’t know how to act toward government ministries, and for everything that happens you say it’s the government’s fault — don’t be mayor. A mayor is someone who knows how to approach the government ministries, to speak to them at eye level, to talk to them in a language they understand and secure from them as much budget as possible for the city, and to lower, as much as possible, the level of bureaucracy.

An election poster depicting Moshe Lion, July 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An election poster depicting Moshe Lion, July 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I want to tell you something: it’s an excuse. Pinui-Binui is a municipality thing. What connection does it have to the government? There is no connection. The same with cleaning, it’s not the government, it’s you in the municipality. Set yourself an order of budget priorities and make sure these things are dealt with. I really think that I have the capabilities and the connections to involve the government much more in the budget of the municipality.

I intend to do that. For example, I want to get the Transportation Ministry to add bus lines. I intend to increase the Interior Ministry’s budget to bring more city cleaners. I intend for the Education Ministry to build more classrooms. Most of the time, especially in the first months, I need to work with government ministries, to bring as much assistance to the city as possible. I did this when I was the head of the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Barkat doesn’t take a salary. Will you if you win?

That’s actually a good question, I’d say. Why? Again, it’s hiding the truth. For one, at the Jerusalem Development Company I worked as a volunteer. And I went there many times a week. I’d expect from a mayor who doesn’t receive a salary, if I compare the budget of the mayor’s office — between one who takes salary and one who doesn’t — that his budget would be lower. But miraculously it turns out that the number of advisers went up, the salaries went up — so I prefer a mayor who receives a salary but saves on the expenses of his office and that everything goes on as usual.

So the expenses of your office, when you’ll be mayor, will be lower?

That’s not the essence. I don’t want to pride myself with something – he doesn’t take a salary, but in the meantime gives out the money for other things that are less urgent to the municipality.

Just to clarify, so you will indeed take a salary?

Of course I will take a salary. I want to be an employee of the municipality, I want the municipality to pay me for the work I do, and not do favors for someone who employs me for free. I think that the mayor deserves a salary – I’d even obligate the mayor to take a salary so that he feels committed to his position and the municipality.

You worked for the prime minister. How come he hasn’t endorsed you?

The prime minister knows me well, and I think he also appreciates my work. I was his bureau chief, I worked for him for three years; he really valued my work. A few months ago I represented him in the coalition negotiations. We worked straight for 45 days only on this, we had an amazing relationship, and therefore he knows and appreciates my skills.

‘The real question is not whether I’m from Givatayim or New York. The real question should be whether I understand the material, whether I know the city well’

I think that besides endorsements for Jerusalem’s City Hall he is currently dealing with many other issues on the agenda. I believe that at the end of the day I will receive his support, and if not — he didn’t support either candidate. I’m waiting patiently, I hope that in the end he will endorse me. The fact is that I’m the candidate of Likud-Beytenu. That means that this appointment received the approval of the head of the Likud party. You don’t just suddenly become the Likud’s candidate.

Did Netanyahu have to approve your appointment?

He has a municipal committee, which makes this decision. It couldn’t be that the committee makes such a decision without the prime minister knowing. I can’t speak in his name, but one thing is clear: the party of which he is the chairman supports me. Also, all Likud ministers support me: Silvan Shalom, Yisrael Katz, Yuval Steinitz, Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar. All ministers and most MKs support me. In parallel, there is not one who says he supports Barkat. That’s a fact that speaks for itself.

Let’s talk about the fact that you’re not from Jerusalem but from Givatayim.

You of all people should understand me better. What are you actually saying — that an immigrant from the US can never be the mayor of Jerusalem? Stanley Fischer can’t be the governor of the Bank of Israel because he made aliyah? What kind of question is that? The real question should be whether you understand the material you’re working with, whether you know the city well.

What’s the difference if someone is from Givatayim or from New York? I currently run for mayor of Jerusalem — the question is whether I have the right skills I need to manage this city and to make the right decisions, at the right time and the right place. I do think I have all the appropriate skills and I could be an excellent mayor.

We agree: we would make great mayors, despite the fact that we weren’t born here. But seriously now, just so we’re clear: are you currently living in the city?

Of course I live here. I’m also a veteran resident of the city.

Since when?

A few months already.

And when you were the head of the prime minister’s bureau, you stayed over sometimes?

Big time. I slept a lot of times in Jerusalem. I slept a few times at home, and many times in Jerusalem. First of all, I have an accountant’s office here in Jerusalem, for many years. I can unequivocally say that in the last 15 years, most of the time, during the week, I spent in Jerusalem. There is no doubt.

Regardless of your qualifications, don’t many residents feel their mayor needs to be from their city, that he needs to be “one of us”?

The residents are discovering their love and respect for me. Of course you can never reach 100 percent of the votes. There are some who think this way and others who think that way. I think that the majority of the people I speak to — that’s not what’s important to them. ‘What’s important for us is to have a mayor who can take the right decisions, right decisions, and whether he grew up in Jerusalem or not is not relevant.’

What about name recognition? Everyone knows the mayor, not so many people know you.

Today, most Jerusalemites already know me. In the last months my exposure to the public was very great. By the way, most of that was a consequence of smears from the other side, and that also helped to publicize me. At the end of the day, the residents of Jerusalem know me, and I think they also have the tools, the real tools, to see beyond the emotional issues – does he live in Jerusalem or not — they have the tools needed to determine whether I will be a better mayor than the incumbent, or whether they prefer the incumbent. I think that most residents of Jerusalem will come to the understanding that I will indeed be a better mayor.

Why do the Haredim support you? Did you promise them something or are they unhappy with Barkat?

Let’s start with this: I don’t have a deal with the Haredim. I do have their support, and it continues to grow, but I promise you that I don’t have any agreement with them. They know me, I worked with them over the last few years, I worked with them in the framework of my position as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. They also worked with me in the coalition negotiations, although they didn’t enter the coalition in the end.

Mayoral candidate Moshe Lion arrives at the shiva (week-long mourning period) for Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 08, 2013. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away in Jerusalem at the age of 93. (photo credit: Flash90)
Mayoral candidate Moshe Lion arrives at the shiva (week-long mourning period) for Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 08, 2013. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away in Jerusalem at the age of 93. (photo credit: Flash90)

They really know me, I know the personalities, the people. But mostly, they can testify that all I really want is to unite the residents of Jerusalem. To take the secular, together with the national-religious and the Haredim, and lower the tension and the polarization that exists today in this city, and reach a situation of dialogue that would unite all. I can really do this, and I think the Haredim know me and know my experience in this area.

It seems, though, that the Haredim aren’t happy about the way some things are going in the city, with stores that are open on Shabbat thriving, and so on. It seems that they do have specific demands of the mayor, things that bother them.

I’ll tell you the truth: They did not have any specific requests in their talks with me. The fact that the city is thriving actually works in their favor, they’re actually happy about that. I don’t think that in the last five years, stores that open on Shabbat prosper more than before…

I am in favor of keeping the status quo, that the situation stays the way it is. I am decidedly in favor of ‘live and let live’ – let every resident live the way he wants to live, ‘the righteous will live by his faith.’ I, as someone who wears a skullcap and come from the national-religious community, am usually between the two and go in the middle.

It’s not really the mayor’s call, but what do you think of women praying at the Western Wall?

All these issues do not fall into my area. I don’t make the decisions on them and therefore I don’t want to get into these discussions.

What about prayer on the Temple Mount?

I am indeed in favor of freedom to pray for Jews on the Temple Mount… I don’t do it, but whoever wants to should be given the right.

What about East Jerusalem? Do you have a different policy than Nir Barkat?

I am in favor of wide construction in East Jerusalem, to allow Jews to build there. But in the same breath I say that we also have to deal with infrastructure for residents of East Jerusalem, both Arabs and Jews. There are serious gaps between the infrastructures and I’m the first one who wants to increase budgets to improve infrastructure there. As long as we want to have a united city, east and west, I need to take care of their needs in the east as much as the west.

Do you have any connections to Arab leaders in East Jerusalem?

I don’t. I don’t have connections. But I believe I have the capability to create these connections if I get elected mayor. I will approach them as residents of the city and will work to get to know them, and they will get to know me and also believe what I say.

Barkat is clearly against a division of the city. Do you agree?

What you’re saying bothers me a bit. Because if that’s so, why did he put [Meretz city council member Meir] Margalit in charge of East Jerusalem? We know that Margalit is in favor of a division of the city. It bothers me a bit that on one hand he’s against a division, and then promises this portfolio to someone who is in favor.

By the way, at some point he did want to cut off some Arab neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city from Jerusalem. I have a clear-cut position, which is longstanding: I am for the unity of the city, and against giving up one millimeter, that all may live side by side in peace and tranquility. I also have to say that he was with Kadima during the time of the Disengagement [from Gaza in 2005]. Regarding political outlooks I would think twice.

How do you respond to those who charge that some of your political allies are somewhat sleazy? After all, Deri went to jail for taking bribes and Liberman is currently on trial for suspected fraud and breach of trust.

First of all, let’s make an immediate distinction. Avigdor Liberman is really a personal friend of mine. I already know him for 20 years and God willing he will be acquitted. But you need to remember one thing: both Avigdor Lieberman and Aryeh Deri are chairmen of very significant parties in Israel’s democratic system. There is absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t support me, or why I wouldn’t conduct negotiations with them.

What about your own past? There were some issues.

I wish you a past like mine. Let’s not get into badmouthing. Since the beginning of the campaign there have been attempts to sully my name. Let’s say it like this: the only investigation was in 1999, in the Amedi case. [At the time, Lion was suspected of having helped funnel funds from Netanyahu to Jerusalem contractor Avner Amedi; the case was dropped.] Beyond that the police never investigated me, thank God, and I never stood trial. Therefore, I wish upon everyone that they should have my past, and God-willing also my future. I am very proud of my past.

Nir Barkat is well-regarded for the cultural events he brought to Jerusalem, such as the Formula Jerusalem exhibition race. Is that a good thing?

I am indeed in favor of cultural events. I have nothing against them, but it’s not the essence. It’s a fact that he’s proud of these things and of other things he’s not proud. The essence is to improve the quality of life of Jerusalem’s residents, to bring it to at least the level of the residents of the center of the country, if not higher. Jerusalemites deserve more. That means, they deserve the events that were organized for them — just like they exist in the center, they should be brought here — but they also deserve to have a much higher quality of life, with a clean city, with much better education and transportation, with a lower cost of housing.

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