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Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Jewish housing

Nir Barkat explains why he's against a slowdown in Jewish home construction in Jerusalem.

April 26, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Reporting from Jerusalem

When Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat took office 18 months ago, he was heralded as a secular, progressive high-tech entrepreneur who would apply his business savvy to modernizing the ancient city, particularly after five years under an ultra-Orthodox leader.

Barkat hired the same consultants as Disney for advice about crowd management and stood up to ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who demanded that he close city parking lots on the Sabbath.

Already a multimillionaire, the 50-year-old mayor refused his government salary and spoke often about finding "win-win" compromises and burnishing Jerusalem's "brand."

But many now wonder whether Barkat is more ideological and politically minded than they thought.

He's resisted enforcing a court order to remove Jewish families living in an illegally built housing project in an Arab-dominated neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Critics see his hand behind the recent advancement of several Jewish housing tracts that have infuriated Palestinians and led to a rift with the Obama administration.

His pet project is a controversial development that would tear down about two dozen illegally built Arab homes in the neighborhood of Silwan and replace them with a Zionist-themed archaeology park and retail center.

One Arab lawmaker called Barkat a "pyromaniac." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the mayor to shelve the plan until tempers cooled.

But Barkat is refusing to back down. As he embarked on a U.S. trip this week, the mayor spoke with a small group of Western journalists about why he will fight any attempts to slow down construction.

Q: The Obama administration doesn't want to see provocative actions in Jerusalem, like development of Jewish neighborhoods on disputed land in East Jerusalem. How has that been communicated to you?

A: Jerusalem will grow, with me or without me, with the American administration or without the American administration. Jerusalem is a city that is developing. The city will [have] 1 million people in 20 years. The key question is: Are we going to manage it or not? It's very straightforward thinking. Nothing new. Nothing political. Very professional. My role and goal is to manage the growth process of the city.

Q: Has there been any guidance from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt or slow construction in neighborhoods over the Green Line?

A: No. I don't know of any other city where, all of a sudden, the American administration has all kinds of requests [about limiting construction]. On the contrary, I think the Israeli government understands we are honestly and fairly building the city. It's a lot of catch-up [work].

Q: There's been speculation that rather than a formal, public freeze in East Jerusalem, there will be an unstated policy to simply avoid approval of large or controversial projects.

A: It cannot work. First of all, when we say freeze, do you mean [a freeze on] Arab building in the city or only Jewish building in the city or both?

Q: On Jewish building in the eastern part of the city that presumably would become part of a future Palestinian state.

A: Do you freeze building for Arabs in the western part of the city? It's illegal. It's an illegal demand. It's illegal in the U.S. It's illegal in Europe. And it's illegal in Israel. Therefore it's a straight no. The same rules for Jews and Arabs apply in all parts of the city of Jerusalem. It's a free market. [People] can buy and sell.

Q: But doesn't the Jewish National Fund control most of the land in Israel and doesn't it have restrictions against dealing with non-Jews?

A: That's not true in the city of Jerusalem. It's different in other parts of the country. In Jerusalem, the vast majority of the land is privately owned. Ownership in the city is diverse.

Q: There haven't been any new approvals by municipal planning committees of significant Jewish housing projects in East Jerusalem since the spat with the U.S. Is that correct?

A: You don't approve on a daily basis. You can expect 37,000 new [housing units] for Jewish residents and 13,000 for Arab residents from now until 2030. It's a long, cumbersome process to build in Jerusalem. The expansion is in phases, and I anticipate that the process will continue for the benefit of all residents.

Q: Is the central government talking to you about ways to manage Jerusalem's growth so it doesn't get in the way of proximity peace talks?

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