An Interview with Nir Barkat

He's in charge of the most contested 44 square miles on the planet. But Nir Barkat, the controversial mayor of Jerusalem, has big plans for Israel's poorest city.

Courtesy of the Mayor of Jerusalem
Courtesy of the Mayor of Jerusalem
Courtesy of the Mayor of Jerusalem

This January, Nir Barkat became mayor of Jerusalem.

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.

FP: Why was it illegal?

NB: Because if somebody wants to do something, they must get the proper licenses. Any event happening in Jerusalem has to get proper licenses from the municipality, the police, to make sure it’s appropriate. It’s common practice in every city in the world. And people want to take their liberty to do things illegally and independently of the municipality and the government — every country in the world will not allow that to happen.

FP: In the 2003 road map for peace it says one of Israel’s obligations is to build and reopen Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem. Do you have any plans for that? Is that a concern?

NB: What kind of institutions are you referring to?

FP: I believe in the road map it refers to a Palestinian chamber of commerce and other closed and shuttered institutions in Israel.

NB: Well, when we get to that phase, let’s discuss it.

But right now in Jerusalem, we’re developing our economy, our services to different residents. My charter is first to help my residents and help the tourists and open up Jerusalem to the world. We’ve got all kinds of embassies in Jerusalem — not embassies, consulates — and those we want to bring to Jerusalem that aren’t here yet.

So we assume that when there’s peace, when it comes, we’ll be friendly with all our allies. So we’ll leave that for the right time and [for] negotiations. Jerusalem will always stay united. And Jerusalem welcomes friends to enjoy Jerusalem.

FP: You pushed back against U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the demolition of the Palestinian homes. Do you agree with that criticism, and how do you see yourself as a player in Israeli foreign relations?

NB: Well, it’s not about Hillary!

Let’s get our facts right! Jerusalem has to be managed as a city. We have to build schools; we have to build roads. We have to make sure people properly get their licenses and that people obey the law. And in many of the cases, when people build illegally, and it’s on the account of their neighbors, and it’s the account of the vision, they have a problem not with me; they have a problem with the law. And the planning process that we’re now expanding.

And so, the city doesn’t stand still. Especially not Jerusalem. In the last 50 years, the Arab population grew dramatically, even more than the Jewish population, and it’s still growing. And that’s fine. And my role is to serve them.

However, things have to be done under law, and the same way that [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg would treat illegal buildings in Central Park, I am obliged as mayor to manage the city day to day, with no political agenda. I’m looking at this in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of a mayor who is committed! Committed to serve all my residents honestly and fairly, according to the law. And my point is you can’t freeze the world. You have to make sure things are built legally and properly. And the fact of the matter is, we are dramatically improving the planning process and the licenses for West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem because I want the city to become successful. And I do not accept any criticism that we’re not obliged to work under the law. We have to work under the law. And that’s proper law. No politics.

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.