The most complicated city in the world: Talking to Mayor Nir Barkat about running Jerusalem

On 12 September Fathom hosted a briefing with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Below is an edited transcript of the event. Barkat spoke candidly about running a city that is under the microscope like no other and contested like no other. He also discussed his vision for Jerusalem to be a model for peace and coexistence around the world and his policies to close the gaps between its different communities.

Nir Barkat: I think with this expert audience I’m excused from explaining how complicated the job is. What I’d like to do is share with you the vision that I have for my city. If you understand that vision, you will better understand the decisions I take.

Let me take you back 3,000 years.

When the people of Israel came back from Egypt after hundreds of years of slavery, the land was divided between 12 tribes. Each tribe had its own bit of land, except for Jerusalem, which for a thousand years made everyone welcome at the gates of the Holy City. Hence the phrase in the Bible, “Jerusalem makes all people friends” – a place where all tribes, Jews and non-Jews alike, could worship.

There is another famous phase in Hebrew, “from Zion, new leadership comes out of Jerusalem”. Returning pilgrims would be asked, “what’s new in Jerusalem?” The idea was, if it works in Jerusalem, it might work here. And that need not apply only to the past of Jerusalem; it could apply to its future too. My experience as a mayor is that Jerusalem is a thought-leader. When we get things to work here – between the secular and the religious, between Muslims, Jews and Christians – we offer a model to others.

Jerusalem simply has to accommodate difference. For example, on Shabbat, ultra-Orthodox and religious people believe nothing should be opened, yet we open restaurants and places for leisure. When you ask the secular people, everything should be opened on Shabbat, but we don’t run public transport and we don’t have commerce on the Jewish side of the city. People in the city respect the compromises we make in order to live together and manage our differences. Since the city was reunited in 1967, Israel has maintained freedom of religion and freedom of movement. In one square kilometre we have more churches, mosques and synagogues than anywhere else in the world. And by the way, not one mosque in the Jewish quarter of the Old City has been destroyed. One united city: there is no other way.

Economic drivers

Since I took office in 2008, I have prioritised the development of Jerusalem’s economy. Jerusalem is still a poor city and one of the biggest challenges we face is poverty. I used to be a high-tech entrepreneur, so I asked myself, which economic drivers can help Jerusalem develop its economy? I’ve been working with Michael Porter from Harvard Business School, whose competitive strategies and competitive advantage theories we’ve been deploying in Jerusalem to achieve economic growth.

Tourism and Culture

There are two major economic drivers that have helped our city aggressively develop its economy. The first is clustering tourism with culture. I didn’t think we did a good job in marketing and selling the city. Today we see an increase of tourism; we were once 2m tourists a year, today we are slightly over 4m tourists a year, and my goal is 10m tourists a year. On the demand side, we are creating many events like the F1 roadshow, the Marathon, the operas, and the light festivals. We’re also developing health and life sciences and high-tech. Last year Jerusalem was hailed by Time magazine and Entrepreneur magazine as one of the top five emerging tech cities in the world. We grew from 250 to 600 start-ups within four years; we climbed the ranks from 35th in terms of the scope of our high-tech industry in 2015 to 25th in 2016; earlier this year Mobileye was acquired for US $15.3bn by Intel; and we have also seen the rate of employment increased – we’ve added 4,000 engineers to the 14,000 we already had, which is a 26 per cent growth in two years.

Education and Opportunity

Side by side with the economy we are dramatically increasing our investments in education, enabling more and more residents to study. In East Jerusalem this year 6,000 students opted into the Israeli curriculum system, which is higher than those in the Jordanian/Palestinian system. My philosophy on education is to give everyone options and then let the parents choose the right education for their children. Also, to allow the school principals the freedom to choose what they teach in their schools. And we have practically all the systems you can think of: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Arabic, French, private and public, secular, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, and Muslim and Christian. The variation within the system is an advantage, not a disadvantage. It enables us to improve the quality of education and is one of the best long-term investments we’re making in the future of our city.

Infrastructure and Investment

We’ve been soliciting the national government to dramatically increase their investments in the city. When I became Mayor in 2009 our budget was 3bn shekels with an additional half a billion for infrastructure investment. This year it is 5.4bn and almost 3bn in investment money. Today, you’ll see lots of cranes, new infrastructure, and new roads. We’re developing a network of light rail lines, including a network of cable cars to connect ancient Jerusalem in places where we cannot build roads or excavate. This will allow us to access these parts of the city in a sustainable way. The high-speed rail link with the centre of the country will be ready next year. We’re going to be announcing at a conference in London some of the new business districts that we’re building at the entrance of Jerusalem. It will be on the scale of Canary Wharf, with 1.6m square meters of office space across 24 towers (9 of them are 36 stories), which will hopefully add 50-60,000 new jobs to the market. It will sit on one of the best transportation hubs and will give the city a huge economic boost.

The infrastructure we are building is to meet the new demands on Jerusalem. We had 9,500 hotel rooms eight years ago, today we have 12,000 and 5,000 more in the pipeline, to be completed in four years time.

Security safeguards

People ask me about the security of Jerusalem. I reply: Jerusalem is one of the safest cities in the world, certainly safer than London, which has 1.4 murders for every 100,000 residents, compared to Jerusalem’s one murder per 100,000 residents.

Of course we face terror, but that is a global problem today. Our first line of defence is having the best signal and human intelligence in the world. The second is that all residents take part in the defence of the city, on the lookout for anything suspicious; that is just how we live our lives. We are fortunate that around 3 per cent of our residents are officers in the Israeli army, well trained in the use of firearms.

When it comes to terrorism we have a philosophy of engagement. This is the opposite of what I often hear is the approach in Europe. We believe that by engaging (even if you are putting yourself at risk) you are helping to save lives. On average it takes about 60 seconds to neutralise a terror attack in Jerusalem, and the death and injury caused by attacks are, on average, lower in Jerusalem than anywhere else in the world.

In Jerusalem, we move very quickly into emergency mode, but we move just as quickly back to normal life. This shows the terrorists that we will not be terrorised. We do not put the army into the streets either, only the police. The terrorists want our cities to become warzones, after all.

The way we deal with terror is to very aggressively confront it and make sure anyone involved in it pays a heavy price. We refuse to move in the direction that the terrorists want. In all these ways, we decrease the motivation to commit terror attacks. This allows us to focus on normal life, on economic growth and improving education. We stubbornly continue to develop and build our city. In many cases we build in the areas in which attacks take place, as we want to be sure that the terrorists understand that not only do we move on, but we also do twice as much as a result of the attack.

I am very optimistic about the future of our city. I’m saying this in spite of the state of the Middle East. Look at what’s happening to our neighbours in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and even Jordan and Egypt. The waves are high, but there is an island of sanity in the Middle East called Israel. Come to Jerusalem and talk to the leaders of the Churches; they all understand that we have an island of sanity here. I’m very proud that we are able to develop the city for all residents and that I am able to deliver such an optimistic talk.

Questions and answers

Question 1: I’ve been travelling to Jerusalem four or five times a year for the last ten years. During your period as Mayor, West Jerusalem has been transformed; it’s now an incredibly beautiful place. In the same period, I have noticed that East Jerusalem has declined. In the evening, the streets empty out. I also notice Jewish neighbourhoods that didn’t exist on previous visits. My question is about the political dynamic that underpins that contrast. A big problem in Jerusalem is that Arab residents boycott municipal elections, so there isn’t the same transactional relationship between the Arab population and yourself as Mayor as there is between you and your voters. When I compare Jerusalem to Haifa or Jaffa, other cities with mixed populations, I see a less equitable distribution of resources. How do you tackle all this as Mayor?

Nir Barkat: First, the Arab residents are my residents, their children are my children. I have to take care of them in the same way that I take care of everyone else. That’s my vision of the city of Jerusalem. And I don’t face any opposition to that philosophy in the Council. We have 31 Council members and when we allocate capital to East Jerusalem nobody argues that we are giving too much. In terms of allocation, I make sure that East Jerusalem gets a fair share of investment. A lot of this is not on the physical side, but in developing schools.

There is a large amount of neglect in this area by this government and prior municipal governments. We are short 3,800 classrooms in our city, that’s over 100,000 kids. They are half Arab and half Jewish: So the neglect is not because of politics, but because of the mismanagement of building a city to its growth over the last 50 years. Were now starting to catch up; this year we opened 80 new classrooms in East Jerusalem, and we just took a loan of 1b Shekels to build 1,000 classrooms. The Arab areas will get an equal share. Additionally, when you invest to develop culture and tourism jobs, the majority of employees in this sector are Arabs, so when it rains it rains on everyone.

Yes, there is a difference in physical terms between East and West Jerusalem, and there is an unfortunate reason for this. In any city, you collect taxes that are reinvested – the building of roads etc. But what happens, as is the case in East Jerusalem, when 80 per cent of the land is not registered? There is no tax collection. One of the biggest challenges is that there is no land registry in East Jerusalem. So they can’t get a mortgage and we can’t collect. This is the main difference between East and West Jerusalem; and between East Jerusalem and places such as Haifa. Decade after decade, tax collection in East Jerusalem has not existed, and what you really need to do is compensate for this process. We’ve been starting to do this. For example, we are now over budgeting for East Jerusalem in order to compensate for past neglect. But it’s a big challenge.

The national government expect the local government to collect and invest. So this isn’t a technical thing, it’s a big legal issue that makes our life more challenging. In spite of this, we are re-investing in more infrastructure, roads and classrooms. But there is indeed a gap and I wish we could do more to address it.

In terms of boycotting elections, you are thinking like a Westerner. The Arab residents don’t care about democracy. They have not the tradition there. For me, it would be easier if they did vote and bring people to the Council who could help us give them services. We compensate for their absence by creating what we call Community Councils. The city is built of seven boroughs and 29 Community Councils. At the top of these Community Councils, you have elected lay leaders of the various communities who help us tailor services to the residents. Teddy Kollek, one of my predecessors, developed that concept but we’ve improved on it. These local leaders – Arab, Orthodox, secular and national-religious – allow us to compensate to some extent for the electoral boycott.

Question 2: Jerusalem lives within the wider context of the conflict. One approach to solving the conflict says Jerusalem is the most complicated part and that everything else should be dealt with first. The other approach says that we have to deal with Jerusalem first because then everything else will be much easier to deal with. Which of these two approaches do you believe in?

NB: You are talking about process and I want to talk about vision. Put the process aside for a second, and see the vision: that the city will never be divided. It would never function as a divided city. I remember before 1967 I was seven years old and I lived 200 yards from the demilitarised zone in the southern part of the city. We’re not going to go back to that. The city has to function as one metropolitan centre with different residential areas.

By the way, I totally disagree with the concept of settlements; in Jerusalem we have residents. To the best of my recollection Jews, Muslims and Christians can live anywhere they want in London and New York, and they can do likewise in Jerusalem. If people want to buy and sell on the free market anywhere they want, it’s legitimate. In Jerusalem anywhere you put a shovel in the ground you find Jewish roots. Who the hell is going to tell a Jew they cannot legally buy property and live in the holy city of Jerusalem?

And remember, we have more Arab residents living in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods than Jewish residents living in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods. The first group don’t need protection; unfortunately, the second does.

But people can live wherever they want and the city is a united city, period. You choose the process; I don’t care. But you should also know that the majority of residents in our city do not want it divided. The Arab residents realise that as Arab-Israelis they enjoy by far the best status of Arabs in the Middle East. If you go to any Arab village in Israel and you proposed to move them into a Palestinian state, they would kill you! They would never allow it.

And who is doing the worst in the region? The fiercest enemies of Israel: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, ISIS in Syria.

Who do you think the Arab residents of East Jerusalem want to be like? It’s very clear to them that they want to be part of Jerusalem. Yes, more development is needed, and we are working on it very hard, but in terms of where they want to be, they make it very clear. One more point, some people tell me that maybe there is not going to be a deal; okay, that’s fine. I prefer no deal to a bad deal.

Question 3: Great vision, but as someone who also knew Jerusalem when it was divided by guns and barbed wire, I have to ask whether Jerusalem is now one of the most divided cities in the world even without the guns and barbed wire? In some areas, when you cross into a different neighbourhood, you feel like you have entered a different city. Most Jewish-Israelis do not go to East Jerusalem, so if it is indeed a united city, why is it that most of the residents of West Jerusalem would never go for a day out to East Jerusalem?

NB: Well, Jerusalem is divided into different neighbourhoods. They are totally open, not segregated. I have one bodyguard for both the west side and the east side. At the beginning of the new school year, I went to visit three schools in East Jerusalem with my one bodyguard and I wandered around the neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem with my one bodyguard. So, first of all, I disagree with you that the city is divided. Sometimes when there is tension then one should be cautious. But the majority of the time, when there is no tension, you see many Jews in the commercial district along the light-rail line, you see many Jews fixing their cars in the Arab sectors of the city, and similarly in the southern part of the city. So if you really know the city and detach from the news for a second, you see that for the majority of the time it’s totally open and free. For example, during Shabbat, many Jews visit the east side as the commerce is cheaper. Jews go there to buy things. The reality I know is different from the one you describe.

Question 4: I wanted to ask about the burgeoning Haredi population in Jerusalem. To what extent have you managed to persuade students in the Yeshiva to work and to join the high-tech revolution that is taking place in Jerusalem? To what extent have you managed to persuade the secular population not to vacate the city, as there appears to be a drain of people toward the centre of the country and away from Jerusalem?

NB: First of all, there is lots of populism around this subject. I remember about seven years ago I held a Council meeting to discuss increasing ultra-Orthodox employment. I was amazed to see how much interest there was in the ultra-Orthodox communities to get people to work. Two years ago we started a joint national-municipal initiative aimed at getting people to work. So far the intake is about 3,000 ultra-Orthodox, three-quarters of which are men. After testing they are sent into jobs. It is an amazing thing; the number of ultra-Orthodox entering the labour market is increasing in absolute numbers and percentages year after year. The trend is very positive.

We also see that more and more ultra-Orthodox are going to colleges. What the colleges need to do is a little bit of tailoring, especially in the physical environment, in order to meet the women and the men separately. If you’re willing to do this, then the whole thing flies.

Similarly, you see some of the leading high-tech companies in Jerusalem taking women and men that are trained in the sector, so you’re seeing more and more success stories. I can also say that three years ago we opened up a school that teaches the full Israeli curriculum for ultra-Orthodox boys. We had 50 students the first year, 200 the second year, 1,000 the third year and we are exceeding 1,500 this year. The number of ultra-Orthodox families that are sending their kids to study the full curriculum is growing year after year.

Regarding the question of how to retain the secular and national-religious people in the city, this is one of the main reasons that I decided to run for mayor. We were experiencing a massive drain of talent and young people. In 2001 we had 64,000 kids in the secular and national-religious school systems. This shrunk in actual numbers and in 2008 we were at 58,000 – a 12 per cent drop in eight years. Today we have 66,000 children in those systems, so we’ve grown back and we are adding another 700 this year. It’s a consistent growth turned around from a consistent decline.

Looking at the reasons behind the growth, there are three factors that influence people to move from city to city. The first is jobs. If you are qualified for a certain job, you migrate to the city that can provide this too you. The second is leisure and quality of life; the cultural renaissance that the city is going through makes a big difference. The third element is the education system. If you’ve got a great education system people stay in the city.

On jobs, quality of life and education, we are moving the needle in the right direction. In terms of the price of housing, it doesn’t really influence those who want to live in a city, as in all cities the price of housing is high. This is as true of Jerusalem as it is of Tel Aviv, London or New York. If people move to the periphery, where housing is cheap, then it may be a motivating factor of where to live, but not if they want to live in a city.

Question 5: What’s happening about the proposal to move the US embassy to Jerusalem? Are you in talks with US officials? Has the momentum behind this possibility remained strong since US President Donald Trump’s visit in the summer?

NB: We proposed how to move the embassy in two minutes. All you need to do is go to the American consulate in Jerusalem, change the plaque to one that reads “Embassy” and give the Ambassador a chair. There is enough room inside to open the Embassy, and you can slowly move the employees in. That’s it, two marines changing a plaque.

I think there was a window at the beginning of the term of the President, which is still open. I don’t get how anybody in his or her right mind doesn’t see West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Just move your Embassy to the west side of the city! That’s where all the world leaders come to meet the Parliament, the Prime Minister and the President. What’s the problem? Why not? Embassies sit in capital cities all over the world. It’s total nonsense not to move the Embassy. But it’s their decision to make. I mean, what’s going to happen? Are the Palestinians going to stop their aid to the US? All America has to say is we recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and we are moving the Embassy to the West side of the city. I haven’t heard a reasonable argument against this.

Question 6: What is your assessment of the piece of legislation that might be coming before the Knesset in October that aims to remove certain Arab neighbourhoods from the Jerusalem municipality?

NB: I think this is the wrong move and I disagree with it. One of the biggest challenges we have is that of the 300,000 residents of East Jerusalem about 50,000 are living on the other side of the security fence. To remind you why the fence is there in the first place it was designed to protect from terror attacks and violence. So naturally, on the other side of the fence the security is not as good as on the inside of the fence; this means it is challenging to help the residents of these areas.

There is a high correlation between neighbourhoods that are mainly quiet and our ability to service them. However, with neighbourhoods that are more challenging, when you supply services you need to provide more police escorts. This means the service we provide is not as good as I would like it to be.

So the reasoning behind the legislation is to set them up as an independent council that can provide the residents with their own services. The reason I disagree with this is because the majority of them cross the fence to access services in Jerusalem such as schools and hospitals, many of them also have jobs across the fence. So it doesn’t make any sense. What you need to do instead is increase the security and simultaneously increase the services supplied to them. This is something that I am willing to do, and it is the right thing to do for the residents.

So a lot of people who don’t necessarily understand how the operations work sometimes have ideas such as this legislation, which I do not think is a good idea.

Question 7: You articulated a very interesting vision and made it very clear that both Arab children and Jewish children are “your” children. However, we all know about the gaps that still exist between West and East Jerusalem. In your time left as Mayor, what do you think the biggest challenges are to achieving your vision? And what therefore will your priorities be going forward?

NB: Getting the right budget from the national government has been my biggest challenge in the last two years. It’s going to be a challenge again this year. I think that the way the national government funds the local governments is flawed and needs to be changed. Local governments do not receive sales or income tax; we can only levy a business tax by the metre. So cities that are strong metropolitan centres or have strong business centres have much more capital to employ than cities that are remote and have little business per square meter per capita. The average in the country is 13.5 square metres a person, the successful cities have 20 plus and Jerusalem has 4.4 square meters per capita. To get out of this situation you need to change the formula between the national government and the municipalities.

Question 8: Is this why you are building the new business centres?

NB: It is one of the reasons yes. But that’s not going to move the needle because we have 900,000 residents today and when it is finished we will be at 1m people. So from 4.4 square meters per capita were going to jump to 6. Even that is not enough; even having a Canary Wharf at the entrance to Jerusalem will not change the equation. So what I’m challenging the national government to do is to change the formula, so that year after year we can catch up to the neglect. To physically invest in the city of Jerusalem we need the funds.

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