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Jerusalem: The Mayor's Vision

October 10, 2010 | by Nir Barkat

Jerusalem must stay united. There is not one example in the world of a divided city that ever worked.

I am a Jerusalemite who spent 15 years in the high-tech sector, taking Israeli companies and ideas into the global marketplace. I retired seven years ago, and since then have been working for a shekel a year promoting and developing the city of Jerusalem.

Two thousand years ago there was already over a thousand years of Jewish history in Jerusalem. Two-thirds of the Tanach happened here. Everywhere you put a shovel in the ground in Jerusalem you will find Jewish roots going back two and three thousand years.

Jerusalem has a population of 800,000 people today, which will grow to a million people 20 years from now. The current population ratio is one-third Muslim, two-thirds Jewish, and two percent Christian. We anticipate that growth will be proportional to the current ratio, and all municipal planning is derived from that assumption.

While Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Jewish people and the capital of Israel, it is also important for over 3.4 billion Christians and Muslims throughout the world.

A Potential for Ten Million Tourists a Year

The vision I have for the city is to return Jerusalem to the role it played two and three thousand years ago as a world center -- a destination for pilgrims and believers throughout the world. I meet people on my travels who say in an apologetic way that they have not yet been to Jerusalem, that it is a place they would like to visit at least once in their lifetime. Our vision is to develop Jerusalem so it can fulfill that role -- to develop tourism, to be a cultural center, and to exploit the spiritual potential of the Holy City.

My goal is to reach ten million a decade from now, making Jerusalem a world center.

.While Jerusalem hosts just over two million tourists a year, my goal is to reach ten million a decade from now. Paris, London, Rome, and New York have over 40 million tourists a year. By increasing the number of tourists that visit the city, we will gain on a number of fronts. First, we will gain ten million ambassadors. People who come to the City of David excavations or the Western Wall tunnels, or who travel to the holy sites, whether they be Christians, Muslims, or Jews, if they come with an open mind, they will understand the power of the city of Jerusalem. Many people have the Bible in their homes, where Jerusalem is mentioned many times.

Ten million tourists a year is the equivalent of 140,000 new jobs for the city, and this is relevant for both the Jewish and the Arab populations. It is one of the ways to get Jerusalem out of its poverty. It is an economic incentive that can unite many people around a common vision.

Exploiting the potential of the city is also a good way to fight emigration. We have learned that when people have good jobs, they will stay in the city, enabling stability. There is room for everyone in Jerusalem -- Arabs, Jews, ultra-Orthodox, and secular -- and we have to develop the city in a way that will enable the different populations to stay and enjoy the power of the city.

Making a Wall-to-Wall Coalition Work

Let me share some of the methodology of how I work in the city of Jerusalem. We have a council of 31 members and in the first month I formed a coalition that included 30 members, which was unprecedented. In a way Jerusalem is a microcosm of what is happening in the country, and I believe that forming relationships between the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox community and the secular, and sitting together on practically every problem that arises, brings solutions to the problems. Not everyone is always happy with the decisions we make, but the methodology of sitting together and focusing on the common denominator works.

The way I manage the municipality is not political but through professional management, where we share thoughts and bring professional solutions in the same way as when I managed in the business world. After a year as mayor, I can tell you that this does work.

Developing a Unique City

Because Jerusalem is a 3,000-year-old city, we have patches upon patches of history about which we have to be very considerate. There are over 3,000 buildings designated for preservation in the city of Jerusalem.

At the moment we do not have the correct ratio between business and residential areas, and there is a large gap in terms of buildings for public needs, such as schools, synagogues, and community centers. In the past, in western Jerusalem, too many building permits were issued to change areas designated for hotels and commerce into residential projects, whereas in eastern Jerusalem, too many neighborhoods were built illegally at a rate with which the municipality and the government could not keep up. When new neighborhoods were built illegally, this created a huge gap in infrastructure, including roads, public buildings, and public land.

The average income of Jews in Jerusalem is about $16,000 a year. In the center of Israel, this figure is approaching $30,000 a year. The average income for Arabs in Jerusalem is about $4,000 a year, but in the West Bank it is less than $1,000 a year. When a young Jewish graduate from Hebrew University sees that the job market is not strong in the city, he migrates out of Jerusalem. However, when the Arabs in the West Bank see that the job market in Jerusalem is so much better than where they live, this encourages Arab migration into Jerusalem.

We are now concentrating on implementing the master plan for Jerusalem which has been developed over the past decade under the administrations of former Mayors Olmert, Lupoliansky, and myself. The master plan has been publicly discussed for five years in the local and district planning committees, and now practically everyone is working according to this plan, although it is not yet official. The plan includes expansion of residential areas in Jerusalem, including the natural expansion of existing neighborhoods. We intend to expand Gilo and Ramat Shlomo and other Jewish neighborhoods, as well as Arab neighborhoods such as Issawiya and A-Tur, in order to take care of the needs of all the different sectors in Jerusalem.

Two of the challenges I face are to come up with clear policies and transparency. I have opened up all of the committee meetings in the municipality to the public, so that today anybody can sit in on every committee, except for the security committee. I have also shared the city's development plans with different administrations -- the American, the British, and whoever else is interested.

For 2.000 years, Jerusalem did not enjoy the degree of freedom of religion that it has had since it was reunited 43 years ago.

I told the American administration that I hope nobody is actually expecting that a building freeze will happen in Jerusalem or that a freeze should be only for the Jewish population. This would be illegal in Israel and unconstitutional in most democratic countries around the world. When the municipality approves a building permit, by law we are not allowed to ask if the resident is Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, and I believe that is exactly the status in the United States. In the next 20 years, with an expected population growth of 200,000, we anticipate a need for 50,000 apartments -- one-third for the Arab population and two-thirds for the Jewish population. We will do everything we can to make this happen.

Jerusalem must stay united. There is not one example in the world of a divided city that ever worked. We have to upgrade the quality of life for all residents, and we must keep Jerusalem undivided.

For 2,000 years, Jerusalem did not enjoy the degree of freedom of religion that it has had since it was reunited 43 years ago. As a matter of fact, when Jerusalem was in Jordanian hands, synagogues and churches were desecrated or destroyed. Today, every religion manages its own sites. It is a strategy and a deeply-held belief within the municipality and the Israeli government that we must enable people to practice their faith in their own way in the city of Jerusalem. The only limited religion in Jerusalem is Judaism, where by law Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.

Fixing Forty Years of Neglect

There is a misconception that most of the building is on the Jewish side of Jerusalem and most of the demolishing is on the Arab side. The reality is that Jews usually do not build illegally, which is why the price of housing on the Jewish western side of the city is very high. People aren't building illegal houses because they respect the law. Unfortunately, in many cases, the mentality of the Arabs is to first build illegally and then apply, or not apply, for a building license. The reality is that it becomes very difficult to serve the Arab population in such a situation.

This is the result of 40 years of neglect, where the planning process was not fully functioning and municipal services were not fully available. The reality is that a lot of buildings were built totally illegally in areas where they should never have been allowed. Today there are about 20,000 illegal buildings in the Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

The challenge is to fix this. We are doing a pilot project in the area of Silwan -- a small Arab neighborhood that consists of 659 buildings, only six, or one percent, of which have permits. Silwan is situated on a hill zoned for buildings up to two stories high, and 50 percent of the structures there are over two stories.

We are faced with three options. The first is to continue ignoring the situation and thus further enable illegal building. But the municipality cannot properly serve any neighborhood the size of Silwan that was never planned. Another alternative would be to deal with the 99 percent of the buildings that are illegal, but that doesn't make any sense either. So what we have done is to re-plan the neighborhood and allow up to four stories. We are also busy working on the infrastructure, to improve the roads, the areas for schools, and to add lots of kindergartens and other municipal services. By re-planning the whole neighborhood, we are trying to address the management of this neighborhood in a professional manner for the benefit of the residents.

In Silwan there are 41 Arab-owned buildings and one Jewish-owned building - Beit Yonatan -- over four stories high. To demonstrate equality before the law, we must treat all of the buildings over four stories high the same. My recommendation is to shave all of the buildings that are over four stories, and not single out only the Jewish-owned building for government intervention. To go after one building is discriminatory and my recommendation to the government is to deal with all residents exactly the same, whether they be Jewish or non-Jewish.

What would Mayor Bloomberg do if somebody built an illegal structure in the middle of Central Park?

I would be interested to hear what Mayor Bloomberg would do if somebody built an illegal structure in the middle of Central Park or anywhere else in New York. The Jewish population in Jerusalem is punished if it does not obey the law, and justifiably so. But sometimes I hear the world say that the Jewish population has to obey the law while the Arab population does not.

There are extreme cases in which people building illegally damage the public interest of the population that lives in the area, or damage the municipal interest in encouraging tourism, for example, and in these cases we have to make sure that the law is obeyed. Over the last decade there were 100 demolitions of illegal buildings a year in Jerusalem: 40 were Jewish-owned and 60 were Arab-owned. This is in spite of the fact that there are many thousands of illegal Arab structures and much fewer illegal Jewish structures. The bottom line is to uphold the law, while at the same time providing proper planning for all of these areas. The courts should get involved only in the serious cases that cannot be fixed by re-planning.

In addition, when people build houses, the government charges them extra to help pay for the infrastructure to the house and around the neighborhood - sewers and roads and sidewalks. This is standard procedure throughout the world. But what happens when a whole neighborhood is built illegally? Nobody ever collected the money to develop the neighborhood. It is even more challenging because if I want to develop Silwan and I take the money from other municipal funds, the residents of other neighborhoods will go to the Supreme Court and challenge this, saying they already paid their share for infrastructure.

The challenges are a little more complicated than people think, but we are going to make it happen and it starts with proper planning. After the 2009 war in Gaza, the world collected $4 billion to help build the infrastructure of Gaza. I suggest they chip in $1 billion, and we will make sure the money goes directly to investment in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to improve their quality of life.

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