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How Nir Barkat’s Lack of Poetry Brought Jerusalem Back From the Dead

Can the mayor hold on in the next elections and continue his drive to pull the ancient city into the 21st century?

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Right off Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem’s German Colony, across from the construction site of a boutique hotel, a sign with faded Hebrew print observes, “It’s sad/ To be Mayor of Jerusalem. It is terrible./ How can any man be the mayor of a city like that?/ What can he do with her?/ He will build, and build, and build./ And at night/ The stones of the hills round about will crawl down/ Toward the stone houses,/ Like wolves coming/ To howl at the dogs/ Who have become men’s slaves” (translated from the Hebrew by Assia Guttman). Yehuda Amichai, the great Jerusalemite poet who wrote those words, died 13 years ago. He might possibly have written something a little different for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

An average June morning found Barkat in his office at 7:00 sharp, perhaps after the 3-mile jog he often makes from his home in the upscale neighborhood of Beit HaKerem to City Hall. The afternoon found him cheering on the Formula 1 race cars that shut down much of city center and attracted tens of thousands of Jerusalemites who waited patiently in the sun to glimpse—and hear—the fast machines.

The Formula 1 road show might have been unique in scale and cost, but it is just one of a slew of sports and cultural events that have helped Jerusalem outpace Tel Aviv and Haifa as Israel’s No. 1 spot for internal tourism. The number of new jobs has increased each year, and the migration from Jerusalem of what Barkat refers to as the “Zionist sector”—the secular and Modern Orthodox population that serve in the military, work, and pay taxes—has finally come to a halt. Despite being one of the most outspokenly hawkish politicians in this country, he remains very popular with wide swaths of his constituency, which has come to accept him as a brash but successful urban CEO. Jerusalem created 5,000 new jobs a year until 2008—when Barkat was elected—and by 2012 there were 17,000 new jobs per year.

Small wonder, then, that in the run-up to the municipal elections scheduled for this coming October, Barkat, 53, remains as of yet unchallenged. “I assume someone will challenge me,” he told Tablet magazine in a recent interview at city hall, “but I’m confident. I believe I’ll get re-elected.”

Barkat’s most likely challenger is Moshe Leon, chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority—and a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman—who hasn’t announced yet but is reportedly eyeing the mayor’s office. Netanyahu has publicly distanced himself from the move, which seems to be the result of inner-Likud politicking under Lieberman’s influence, but nothing is certain. If Leon were to join the race, as a joint Likud and ultra-Orthodox candidate, that would be a failure of what many perceive as recent overtures on the part of Barkat to Netanyahu—including the naming of an intersection after Netanyahu’s late father and the recent tourism award given to Netanyahu’s benefactor Sheldon Adelson. Losing the Haredi vote to a candidate viewed as more favorable to their sector’s needs—Leon is religious, though not ultra-Orthodox—could very well mean the loss of the mayoralty.

But Barkat, who stays relentlessly on-message, said he has the support that counts. “The public are the ones voting, and they like what they see,” he told Tablet. “It’ll be extremely difficult for anybody to come and convince them otherwise.” His stump speech is a carefully itemized list of first-term achievements, and he rattles them off with alacrity. Tourism? “Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and a destination for pilgrims from all over the world. We’re proving that potential with close to 4 million tourists a year.” Events? “The Euro Under-21 football games in June, Maccabiah games in July, Formula 1, Jerusalem marathon: These are all new and expanded sports and culture initiatives that create not only a buzz, but real culture. That translates to better quality of life, attractive city for young people, and a significant boost in job creation.”

Over his next term, Barkat plans to build the largest sports complex in the country to host national and international games, and even build an aquarium. “In 2017,” he said, “you’ll take a fast train from Tel Aviv and be in Jerusalem in 28 minutes. You’ll alight in the middle of the new business district, with 13 35-story towers. There will be two more light-rail lines and a cable-car to the Old City.”

***

Born in 1959 to a folk-dancing instructor and a physics professor, Barkat moved with his family to Jerusalem when he was very young. In 1977 he enlisted with the paratroopers. He became an officer and stayed in the military for six years, garnering combat experience as a company commander in the First Lebanon war. He received his degree in computer science from Hebrew University, married his high-school sweetheart Beverly (they have three daughters). The company he founded with his brother and friends, BRM, was a pioneer in antivirus software. Using the profits gained from the sale of their core technology to the security software giant Symantec, BRM provided initial venture capital to Check Point, which was then a tiny Israeli start-up specializing in innovative firewalls. Only a few years later, that $400,000 investment was worth several hundred million dollars. In 2003, Barkat, long past the point of realizing that he would never have to work another day in his life, entered his first race for mayor of Jerusalem.

Today, Barkat’s prized Zionist sector is still in the minority, with more Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem than secular and Modern Orthodox Jews. But at least that minority is finally growing—“we’re opening 27 new kindergartens in the Zionist sector this September”—and not shrinking as it was under his predecessors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski. When I raised the possibility that perhaps the negative migration was affected by the Second Intifada, Barkat seemed taken aback. “There’s no direct correlation,” he said. “The changes had nothing to do with security. We’re focusing on the positive. It’s about marketing Jerusalem. Take the events in the Old City,”—he said, in reference to festivals, sponsored by the municipality, that draw thousands. “They boosted the return of the public there. It’s better now than it was before the Intifada.”

“Of course he was lucky,” said Nir Hasson, who covers the Jerusalem beat for Haaretz. “Lucky for the separation fence that effectively ended the threats to the city. Lucky for five years of relative prosperity. And lucky for the light rail that Olmert initiated in a very unpopular move, whose installation took forever and made everyone miserable. The day he took office, Barkat hinted he might even do away with it, but in the end he was more than happy to be the one cutting the ribbon.”

Barkat may have been lucky, but he has remarkably few vocal critics. “Jerusalem doesn’t need a complicated philosopher king, but someone who knows how to get things done,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and longtime Jerusalemite. Halevi thinks Barkat is the best man on the job since Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s legendary and much-loved mayor and master-builder, whose reign lasted for almost 30 years (1965-1993). “What he’s accomplished is phenomenal. He’s succeeded in promoting a vision of a modern Jerusalem, using culture as a vehicle, without rousing the ultra-Orthodox against him in an organized way. He’s brought large numbers of secular Israelis to Jerusalem, if not to live here than at least to visit, and that’s a tremendous first step.”

***

After Barkat lost the 2003 elections to the ultra-Orthodox Lupolianski, with only 43 percent of the vote, he spent five years as an opposition councilman working with NGOs on grassroots initiatives in the city. Politically, he seemed to be a centrist; in the run-up to the 2006 national elections, he chaired Kadima’s Jerusalem headquarters. But two years later, close observers say, Barkat had the epiphany that would call for an extreme rightward turn on his part but that would finally win him the job he coveted.

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How Nir Barkat’s Lack of Poetry Brought Jerusalem Back From the Dead

Can the mayor hold on in the next elections and continue his drive to pull the ancient city into the 21st century?