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?
“Barkat realized that the prevailing wisdom was wrong,” explained Hasson. “Everyone thought that there were two sectors in Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox Haredim and the secular public, who almost always vote for their own. But the true kingmakers are a third sector: the national-religious, Modern Orthodox Jews. They can vote either ultra-Orthodox or secular, but they tend to be pretty right wing. That being the political reality, you just can’t be a leftist mayor in Jerusalem.” Barkat then reinvented himself as a vocal hard-liner: A month before the election, he toured the planned site of a new Jewish neighborhood—Sha’ar Hamizrach (Gate of the East) deep in the heart of North Jerusalem, by the Arab neighborhood of Anata—and promised to build it. Five years later, those plans have yet to come to fruition, but Barkat’s new right-wing persona paid off: He won the elections with 52 percent of the vote (the ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush received only 43 percent).
His rhetoric is harsh—especially for a man with such carefully controlled speech—and at times almost tone-deaf to diplomatic reality, like when he suggested the Palestinians rename Ramallah “Jerusalem” because that would be the closest they’d ever get to having Jerusalem as their capital.
When I asked Barkat about the value of enforcing Israeli sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, despite the clear division of the city’s neighborhoods along ethnic and national lines, Barkat told me he didn’t understand the question. “There’s room for everyone in the city,” he said. “Usually people like to live near people similar to them. As mayor I have no say, but I respect people’s will. As municipal service-providers, homogenous neighborhoods are easier to serve. The reality is that all residents will be treated equally by the municipality.” While he acknowledged the gaps between the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, he said he’s working to close them, opening over 100 new classrooms in Arab neighborhoods this year (out of a planned 500) and working on improving infrastructure and roads.
“Part of his vision for Jerusalem is to truly unite East and West as much as possible,” said Klein Halevi. “There are powerful signs of that happening: the light-rail”—which serves both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods—“is a celebration of the banality of coexistence. It’s truly an achievement to have a crowded train car filled with the human diversity of the city: people who don’t really want to be in the same car with each other but have no choice and are making the best of it. That is Barkat’s Jerusalem.”
Nir Hasson agrees that beneath Barkat’s right-wing rhetoric lurks the heart of a middle-of-the-road pragmatist. “For all his talk of an eternally united Jerusalem, he knows that the question of dividing the city for peace won’t be settled in his office,” he explained. “He’s done a lot to obtain permits for unauthorized buildings in Arab neighborhoods, and the demolitions are the lowest they’ve been in years.”
But in a city as complex as Jerusalem, no policy is without its repercussions: Hasson has also observed a growing “Israelization” of the city, with increasing numbers of East Jerusalem Arabs—who enjoy better municipal services while finding access to the West Bank more difficult since the construction of the separation wall—applying for full Israeli citizenship. The implications of this trend for the likelihood of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state are anyone’s guess.
Barkat’s Jerusalem, then, is that of the recent Formula 1. He said, “280,000 viewers, tens of thousands of Arabs and ultra-orthodox among them, all sharing the streets. Everyone was happy. There was not one incident reported to the police. That demonstrates something about us Jerusalemites: People wake up in the morning, they want quality of life, jobs, great hospitals. Eventually the city is shared by the residents far more than people think.”
In the meantime, though, the road to complete normalization is a long one. On a tour of the Old City, Barkat made a point of greeting some Arab cleaners at work in the Jewish quarter—“Good work, ya habibi!”—and posing for pictures with them. But Barkat’s campaign workers in blue-and-orange T-shirts, ubiquitous at events in the city, are nowhere to be seen in Arab neighborhoods. Barkat, supremely confident he’ll win the Jewish vote, said that he doesn’t know whether the Arabs will vote for him. The real question is whether they’ll vote at all, as the Palestinian Authority traditionally enforces a powerful boycott on the municipal elections. (Only about 1 percent of Arab residents participated in the last elections.)
Barkat’s Jerusalem, smoothing over the rifts and ruptures that many other politicians would more likely exploit for their own benefit, could serve as a useful example for the greater Israeli society. How does he plan on integrating the historically poor Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations? “Parallel job creation and education. We’ve created a bullish economic atmosphere that enables more and more businesses to start,” he said. The point is not to impose upon people who value their autonomy, “but to let them opt in, so they can catch up. Not by pushing them, but by pulling them—that’s much more effective.” By ignoring the city’s inherently tragic state and celebrating the banalities of coexistence, Barkat’s mayorality may not be the stuff of great poetry, but it has brought Jerusalemites something much rarer here: hope.
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Agents of Influence: With the nation divided, in turmoil, and lacking hope for peaceful prosperity, a Middle East neighbor has reason to fear