Nir Barkat challenged the Obama administration to better define the parameters of a construction “freeze” in Jerusalem.
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DENVER—Pressed time and again by Washington Institute fellow David Makovsky on East Jerusalem construction, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat responded in kind with a query of his own: “When you talk about a freeze in the city of Jerusalem, what do you exactly mean?”
Barkat’s message at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly on Sunday was that, when the Obama administration criticizes moves like the Israeli government’s expedition of construction on 2,000 housing units in East Jerusalem following UNESCO’s decision to accept “Palestine” as a member state, the administration should define the construction “freeze” it is calling for—a freeze for specifically Jewish construction, or a freeze for Jewish and Arab construction alike?
The Israeli government’s construction plan, Barkat said at a GA session titled “Community Building in Jerusalem,” includes community centers, Arab classrooms and other aspects meant to improve quality of life for every religious group. Do the U.S. and the rest of the global community want to freeze that, Barkat asked?
More than once, Makovsky asked Barkat if Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu would be best served focusing on construction in Jewish-only neighborhoods, and avoiding the building of “Jewish enclaves” in Arab neighborhoods.
“We have more Arabs living in Jewish neighborhoods than Jews living in Arab neighborhoods,” Barkat responded.
Barkat said he doesn’t envy Netanyahu’s position on the building issue, but said the prime minster made the correct decision not giving in to demands to stop Jewish building. It’s a matter of Jewish survival in Jerusalem, Barkat said.
“You’ve got to build, and you’ve got to build in the city in an honest and fair way,” he said. “If you don’t build, you’re going to lose the city.”
Regarding Israel’s ongoing housing crisis and the social protests of the summer, Barkat pointed to unrented apartments in Jerusalem—units often owned by American Jews—as a primary cause of the exorbitant cost of rent in the city. Some of the best law students get subsidies to attend school in Jerusalem but can’t attend because of how much housing costs, he said.
“I am all for people acquiring apartments in Jerusalem, [but] you’ve just got to bear in mind that the apartment must not stay empty,” Barkat said. “Imagine 9,000 apartments out of the reach of rent, it’s a huge, huge hit on our economy.”
Barkat said his inspiration to move from the private sector (he was a venture capitalist) to politics came from getting involved in Jerusalem’s schools to see if he could make a difference, then learning that the city had so many other challenges—including its status as the poorest city in Israel.
He recalled telling his wife, “We have a challenge here [in Jerusalem], and it’s not going to change on its own.”
“If you would have asked me 15 years ago if I’d be mayor of Jerusalem, I’d probably tell you you’re totally crazy,” Barkat said.
Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.