...In this interview, conducted to coincide with Wednesday’s Jerusalem Day, Barkat sets out his vision for Jerusalem both ideologically and at street level. ...much of it revolves around the mayor’s overall philosophy, which stands starkly at odds with the international community’s default attitude to Jerusalem and its future. As earnest as ever, and unusually candid, Barkat states flatly that he’s right and the world is foolish, hypocritical and plain wrong....
...What’s the latest demographic breakdown of the city?
Well, about 35% of the population is Arab — about 33% Muslim and 2% Christian. And then from the remaining 65%, you have about 22% ultra-Orthodox and 43% Zionist.
...In which areas is there space to build?
We’re talking about expansion of current neighborhoods. In Gilo, Givat Mesua… We can hit the target of creating 50,000 more apartments over the next 10-20 years.
To raise the city’s population from today’s 800,000 to one million?
Yes. It has to be done while developing areas for business and industry. This is another thing I’m very proud of. We’ve outlined a new business district at the entrance to the city which will enable us to build 13 towers of 35 stories. And with the expansion of the (nearby) government (office) areas, that’s 1.1 million square meters of office space, culture, hotels, that can employ about 40,000 people.
What’s the time scale?
We will see the first towers in the next five years, and it will complete itself in the next seven to eight.
...It seems to me that your philosophy is to try to unify the city as much as possible, bring harmony to the city, give East Jerusalem Arabs a stake in the city… But that’s not realistic. Israel is never going to be able to make peace with the Palestinians while maintaining sovereignty throughout Jerusalem, and therefore your vision, if there is to be a political accommodation, is destined to fail.
I disagree with you. I keep on saying to people, to better understand the future of the city, you have to understand what happened here when Jerusalem was functional for a thousand years. When Jews came to the Land of Israel, each tribe had a piece of the territory, except Jerusalem. It was not divided among the tribes. For a thousand years, it was managed as a city that all people came to, and they felt, ‘Wow, the city belongs to me as much as it belongs to the other tribes.’ And Jews and non-Jews alike that used to come to Jerusalem felt respect… for people different from them.
It’s sort of the foundation of modern democracy – where different people were equally accepted into the gates of Jerusalem. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great idea for all tribes or all peoples around the world. But when something was successful in Jerusalem, by definition it’s accepted by all tribes, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Jerusalem had a role as a united city, whole, not divided into tribes. That is the DNA we have to develop because nothing else will ever work. The city has to work for all sectors. By definition, that DNA cannot be divided.
I’ll give you another perspective. Not one city in the world that was ever divided stayed functional. Now, the fact that there’s lots of pressure, that people think that, as you said…
That as long as Israel insists on sovereignty throughout the city, there’s no chance for a peace…
I totally disagree. That kind of thinking will get us nowhere. It will get us to a dead end, to a bad deal that will fall apart. And I prefer not to do a deal, if it’s a bad deal.
The Arab residents (of Jerusalem) are looking around. They’re looking at countries around us in the Middle East. Nothing to write home about. Egypt is not a role model for them, neither is Syria, nor Iraq, nor Iran, nor Lebanon, nor Gaza. They look at the Arab Israelis and in spite of all the challenges we have in Israel, by far they prefer to be part of Jerusalem than not. The vast majority of the Arab residents in Jerusalem do not want the city divided. The vast majority of them, if God forbid anybody imposes a division on the city, they will move to the west side. The quality of life in Jerusalem is increasing at a dramatic pace. Jobs, the quality of medicine, the school system — we have huge improvements in the school system. I’ll just give you an example: The bagrut (Israeli matriculation). We are introducing the bagrut into the schooling system in the Arab areas. They’re opting in to the Israeli way of learning.
I don’t doubt anything that you’re saying about what ordinary people want in their hearts, but the historical precedent you cited — of all the tribes – it was nonetheless an Israeli-controlled city. Now you have 250,000 Arabs.
An Israeli-controlled city.
Their leadership – never mind what they may say privately – their leadership is not going to agree…
That’s not true. They are living as residents of Jerusalem and there is lots of local leadership that works directly with us in a huge capacity of joint work. They’re working with the municipality of Jerusalem like many of the other residents of the city.
But their ‘national leadership’ has a stated ambition, endorsed by almost all of the international community, that they would have some kind of sovereign share of Jerusalem.
Well, when you poll the residents of Jerusalem you will find that you’re wrong. You’ll find that yes, some of them see themselves as Palestinians, but they see themselves as Jerusalemites first and I don’t think there’s a contradiction between the two.
Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved with Jerusalem in its current municipal size, under Israeli sovereignty?
I’ll state the question differently. The challenge is what can we do with our neighbors when they realize that Jerusalem has to stay united.
Do you think of a model in which you would have a Palestinian mayor-partner or deputy mayor?
The answer is no separation of the city. One city, period.
Under sole Israeli sovereignty?
And you think that this is not a recipe for endless conflict with the Palestinians?
Any other idea is a theoretical, bad deal. It is a theoretical concept that I hear. In the practical world, I know, God forbid, if the world pushes us there, it’s just a matter of time before things will fall apart. It will not bring closer a resolution or a better relationship with our neighbors. There is no doubt in my mind. It will get much, much worse.
And the Olmert idea of non-sovereign control of the Old City and dividing the city into Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled neighborhoods is a terrible mistake?
Terrible mistake.
Thank goodness Abbas turned it down?
Thank God he’s not there.
Who’s the “he”?
That he’s not where? In the prime minister’s office?
Yeah. I think it would have been a bad deal. And I was deeply disappointed to hear him even think this way, because I did not hear this from him in the past, when he was here (as Jerusalem mayor).
Maybe he was like others. He may have given up on the city. It was in a negative spiral. But today, thank God, the city is in a positive spiral.
And yet, for example, I remember I was sitting in here with you a couple of years ago and you had the whole development scheme for Silwan (an Arab neighborhood just outside the Old City walls), a very ambitious project which would have made real change on the ground…
It’s still there and it will happen.
But it didn’t happen. You were ready to go with this and people told you privately at an individual level that this (development) is fantastic for Arab residents of the city. Yet when push came to shove, even your ally at the national level, Netanyahu, had to tell you that this is not workable.
Well, there are many, many elements to the whole Silwan side. The bigger part of (developing) Silwan, I was able to move it through the municipal system with zero objection. I’m talking about the larger part of Silwan. The Gan Hamelech area, which is the smaller part of Silwan, there’s a bit of controversy. There’s no doubt in my mind, it’s the best thing for the residents. And, by the way, the controversy is from both sides. From the extreme left and the extreme right… I’m still waiting for the national government to approve the new plan because once everyone understands that it’s the right thing to do, one must go ahead and do it.
By the way, at the time, when I proposed the plans for Silwan, it was the beginning of the term. There’s no doubt in my mind there’s no better solution because the current solution is worse. The current quality of life of the residents, who are all breaking the law (because their homes are built illegally) is much worse. And we cannot help them until we introduce the new plan. Now the new plan doesn’t call for any eviction, everyone improves their quality of life, you bring dramatic investments into the place, you enable commerce, and all the residents stay.
That was the goal when we planned this. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s defendable, it’s right, it’s honest, it’s fair. It’s much, much better than the current situation. That’s why eventually it will happen. It is indeed for the benefit of the residents. At the beginning of the term, the trust element was missing. Now I’m telling you that even the people who objected to it in the past are now considering supporting it. They’ve been here (and said) to me, ‘Oh, we didn’t know, we thought that the intention was whatever it is.’ Now they understand that the intention is: what you see is what you get.
They thought the intention was to ‘Judaize’ the area?
Yeah. Which was not the intention. So now, when people really understand that it’s for the benefit of the residents, and that it’s a much better solution than the current situation, there is a much, much wider acceptance of the plan.
I would not be surprised if in the term of this (national) government, my next term, we will be able to bring such new innovation to some of the parts of East Jerusalem, some of the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. They deserve it. It’s just a matter of making sure they understand that it’s an honest and fair plan. We’re very close to being there.
On housing, on the land, as you say, you are dependent on the national government. And the national government is operating in a global arena where any building for Jews over the ’67 line is controversial, headline-making and potentially problematic — as when a vice-president comes to visit. Have there been major projects that have actually gone all the way through, where there is now building going on? Ramat Shlomo, for example (where the announcement of building plans during Vice President Joe Biden’s 2010 visit caused a crisis in ties with the US), has anything happened there?
First, let me challenge the fundamental statement you just said. There was a period of a few years when there was a lot of pressure from the different governments of the world to freeze building in Jerusalem. I had a few questions (for those who made that demand). I said, ‘Here are the facts: We’re building 500 classrooms (in East Jerusalem) that were below standard; those are now 500 classrooms that are the best in the city. We’re building lots of infrastructure, investing in lots of roads. And we’re starting to resolve some of the legal challenges because there’s no proof of ownership on 90% of the land in East Jerusalem. So if somebody wants to build a building, we don’t know if he owns it or not because there’s no credentials. Which is absurd, but that’s life. We resolved some of those legal issues, to enable people to get a license or at least a temporary license until we know that nobody challenges their ownership claims.
We (now) have 50,000 registered apartments in East Jerusalem (up from 39,000). We’re still in a process of registering.
And how many are there?
We guesstimate that it’s between 55-65,000. We made a big, big change on that, and there was very little negative resistance – on the contrary. We’ve given names to practically all the streets.
So, I’d ask: ‘Should we stop all that? Or God forbid, are you saying that I as mayor, when somebody comes to build, that I have to ask him if he’s a Jew or not Jew? Not to give a license to the Jews and to give a license to the Muslims or the Christians? Under which law? American law? English law?’
As mayor, I can only check if the building is legal. I’m going out of my way to enable building even in places where the registry of land is not clear. I will go out of my way to enable people to build, to enable people to register their homes. Once their home is registered with the municipality, it’s worth much more for the resident.
Now, some of the government-owned land they had to dish out only by bid – to the highest bidder. They are not allowed to ask if the people who won the bid are black or white, or Jewish or Muslim or Christian. Anybody can use a lawyer and a proxy and win a bid. Government-owned land all over the country is sold to the highest bidder.
So, I totally reject this international pressure because it’s illegal, it’s unethical. We will continue working by Israeli law, which is similar to any other law, and we will not discriminate Jews from non-Jews, for good and for bad.
...Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that when you say, ‘We operate according to Israeli law,’ they will tell you that any building over the ’67 line is illegal under international law.
Which building – (for) the Jews or the Arabs?
Anything which Israel does which changes the status quo on the ground. You’re a big believer in the status quo. All the expansion of neighborhoods beyond the ’67 line, they will say, is a case of you changing the status quo.
But here’s the absurdity of this, okay? If you look back on the last 20 years, the Arab population is growing, in market share, faster than the Jewish population. So, if anything, they’re wrong. If anything, the status quo is the other way around. Natural growth of a city has to be planned. The master plan that we proposed, of scaling from 800,000 people to a million people, is an honest and fair plan. It enables natural growth, for the Jews and non-Jews alike. And the reality is that we’re investing and catching up with the challenges that we had in an honest and fair way. And to come and to make such statements is totally political…
When the International Criminal Court rules one day that it is illegal for Israel to be building in, choose whichever neighborhood you like, Ramat Shlomo, Gilo, Armon Hanatziv – your response to that is, ‘If that’s international law then international law is an ass, and what we’re doing is for the best interests of the residents of the city.’ Am I right?
I work under Israeli law. I work for Israel, as an Israeli, and I have 100 percent confidence as mayor of the city of Jerusalem that we’re doing the right thing for all residents. It’s not against anyone. The fact is that all residents are happier today than they were in the past. The fact is that the model we’re proposing for Jerusalem, I did not invent. It worked amazingly well for a thousand years. We’re repositioning Jerusalem to its role in the world.
Sometimes I feel people have triple standards. Here’s where the world stands: They expect from us in Israel more than they expect from themselves. Which is fine. I accept that. They try to hold us accountable to higher ethics and standards. And I can live with that. On the other hand, they have no expectations from our Arab neighbors.
When one criminal dies from cancer in an Israeli prison, the whole world goes crazy. When you have 50,000, 70,000 people murdered and killed in Syria, the outcry is less. That’s absurd.
There’s no accountability. I didn’t hear the international world come to the Arab residents of Jerusalem and demand of them to build legally, to do what they are obliged to do. I don’t hear that. So building illegally is totally okay. But for Jews to build legally, anywhere in the Holy Land, is not okay? So there’s very, very clear triple standards.
What are your thoughts on the dispute surrounding Jewish rights to pray on the Temple Mount? One might be forgiven for assuming that you would say, ‘This was recaptured, liberated by Israel in ’67. How ridiculous that this is the one place in the world where Jews are not allowed to pray?’ Is that what you think?
It is ridiculous. The status quo is ridiculous. But it’s the status quo.
And therefore, you’re fine with that.
(Sighs) No, I don’t feel comfortable with it.
You think Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.
Well, theoretically, yeah. Why not? I mean, I don’t think the Muslims should feel that enabling Jews to pray in their holiest site should be a problem. But, again, it’s the status quo and changing the status quo is a huge challenge, especially in things like this. And I wouldn’t rush to make a change without working it out with the different players.
Do you have relations with the different players? I mean, are there such consultations taking place? The (relevant Muslim authorities) would be utterly resistant to the idea (of Jews praying on the Temple Mount).
I’m not involved in any of this at this point. I don’t think it’s prudent to deal with this at this point. That doesn’t mean I’m happy with it.
...President Obama was recently here. What you’ve said to me today about how you see the future of Jerusalem, in terms of who controls it, is anathema to the worldview that even our closest ally stands for. You’re running against the current of international thinking, even from our closest friend.
Unfortunately, they’re wrong. You want to hear the truth. You want to understand what will work, not what our allies are telling you. And if anything, I would recommend to our allies to ask us and to better understand the big writing on the wall. For every complex problem, there is one simple, wrong answer. What they’re seeking is the simple, wrong answer for this region, for Jerusalem, for the Middle East and for the relationship between us and our neighbors.
I propose a different solution, which is derived from our past. And I believe that we’re showing and demonstrating that it works – much better than any other solution they could propose. The fact that they’re saying what they’re saying doesn’t mean they’re right. And I will do everything I can, the best I can, not only to fulfill the vision I have for Jerusalem, but through doing and developing the city, to convince the rest of the world, or whoever doesn’t understand what’s going on here, that while they are thinking right and left, we’re thinking up and down. While they’re thinking in a certain format throughout these years, that format will never work.
This vision of yours does not sentence Israel to endless friction with the Arab world? Your vision of a pastoral, harmonious city doesn’t mean that we are going to be in a forever antagonistic relationship with the Arab world?
I will answer it differently. I think we should stick to our strategy and manage the conflict until there’s a window of opportunity to create peace – where our neighbors understand our strategy. You see, doing a bad deal? Better not do it.
So what would be your vision of an accommodation with the Palestinians?
Well, it would probably be in line with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s understanding of the two-state solution. But not dividing Jerusalem.
And not giving the Palestinians any share of sovereignty.
No, no, there’s no such thing. No such thing in the world.
Is there room in that vision for something next to Jerusalem, the Abu Dis kind of idea although [the Arab neighborhood of] Abu Dis is partially in Jerusalem — some kind of Palestinian sovereignty that could be considered…?
Call Ramallah “Jerusalem.” ...Change its name to Jerusalem, to northern Jerusalem, ok? Give it another name. But it’s not Jerusalem.