This January, Nir Barkat became mayor of Jerusalem.
Barkat, a conservative-leaning Netanyahu confidant who ran as an independent, made two major campaign promises. First, the self-made tech millionaire vowed to revitalize Jerusalem's economy; plagued by a shrinking tax base, the city is now the poorest in Israel. Second, he vowed to keep Jerusalem undivided, its government secular, and its administration fair.
But Jerusalem is an unusually difficult city to govern. Its land is holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims; its affairs an unusually international concern. Barkat answers to a fractured populace that is about a third Arab and a third ultra-Orthodox. No wonder Jerusalem's mayors historically struggle for little better than to preserve the status quo.
As Barkat pushes forward with a multi-million dollar revitalization plan -- which involves refurbishing the Old City and building in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem -- he has been hit from all sides. Arab Israelis and Palestinians have harshly criticized an uptick in home destruction and a series of controversial building decisions in their neighborhoods -- as have American and European authorities and the United Nations. This summer, protests by ultra-Orthodox haredim became violent when Barkat pushed to keep a parking lot open on the Sabbath.
In the midst of these struggles, Barkat spoke with Foreign Policy about his plans for Jerusalem, the sensitive issue of settlement building, and what it means to govern the most contested 44 square miles on Earth. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: To an international observer, it seems that preserving the status quo has been difficult in the first six months. Earlier this week, you were actually the subject of physical attacks. What actions are you taking to preserve the status quo? What is the importance of doing so?
Nir Barkat: I do think the status quo is important in the city. And the status quo is defined by certain categories. That there is no public transportation, there is no commerce on Shabbat [the Jewish day of rest, observed on Saturday]. But there are open places, restaurants, and places of leisure.
Discussing parking and traffic is not part of the status quo, and it never was. Indeed, you have a lot of parking lots open on Shabbat. All the hospitals, all the hotels, and a few public places.
From my perspective, there's been no change in the status quo. It's important to maintain the status quo, and it is part of my coalition agreement with my fellows in the municipality, where 30 out of 31 members of the council are part of the coalition. Orthodox and non-Orthodox, we stick together. The people that are now protesting, the protesters are 2 percent of the population. Any decision a mayor may take in the city of Jerusalem, sometimes a few percentages, the people do not like. As long as they demonstrate legally, I have no problem. But, if they break the law and become violent, they become a problem with the police.
FP: You're a businessman. A lot of your promise coming in to lead the municipal government was to revitalize the economy in a Jerusalem with a shrinking tax base, among the poorest cities in Israel. What's your plan to revitalize and rebuild?
NB: My vision is to exploit the potential of the Old City of Jerusalem. We have a huge, huge potential.
I worked with Professor Michael Porter, from Harvard Business School, in developing an economic model. Jerusalem has to play the role it did two or three thousand years ago, as a destination for pilgrims and tourists and people who want to taste the values and the experience and the culture and the religious and the historical competitive advantages we have. We have the best location in the world. The best brand in the world. Amazingly enough, if you compare where we are today to the potential of other cities -- Rome has 40 million tourists a year, New York has 47 million tourists a year, Paris and London have over 40. Jerusalem has 2 million tourists. I set a goal of 10 million tourists [by] the next decade. ... That's our goal.
FP: But much of the conflict that has emerged during the time you've been mayor has been over building. It has been with the ultra-Orthodox community and also with the Palestinians. I wonder if you can contextualize the incidents, the car park and the Shepherd Hotel [in which the municipal government approved renovating the building, located in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, for Jewish settlers], within the broader goal of economic revitalization? And preserving the city's balance?
NB: It's not even rounding errors, relative to what we have on the table.
This summer, we broke records in terms of the number of people coming to cultural events in the city of Jerusalem; we had hundreds of thousands of people, more than we had in prior years, enjoying the city of Jerusalem. We had festivals, we had street parties, and new products -- a dramatic increase in the number of people coming to the city of Jerusalem.
That's the real news. And I'm very happy with the progress we've been making.
FP: Recently Israeli police shut down cultural events that Palestinians were having when Jerusalem was named city of the year for culture by an Arab group. Do you think that was a mistake?
NB: It was illegal, and the police didn't allow it to happen.