New Jerusalem Mayor Reflects City's Schism

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Jerusalem's new mayor, Nir Barkat, is a high-tech entrepreneur who defeated an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in a contest that underscored the divisions between Jerusalem's secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox community.


Now to Jerusalem which has a new mayor. He is high-tech entrepreneur Nir Barkat. In yesterday's vote, Barkat beat out an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in an election that pitted Jerusalem's secular Jews against the ultra-Orthodox community. Barkat says he wants to apply models from the business world to his work governing Jerusalem. And the new mayor also plans to keep expanding Jewish settlements in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, as Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Nir Barkat made millions of dollars as one of the pioneers of anti-virus software. He then launched a venture capital fund. Five years ago, he ran for mayor of Jerusalem, losing to an ultra-Orthodox candidate by fewer than 20,000 votes. Since then he has devoted himself fulltime to his position on the Jerusalem City Council, an unpaid job, and working on his next campaign. This time it paid off. Thousands of young Barkat volunteers canvassed the city, door to door, to get out the vote. The Barkat campaign hired dozens of buses to bring in Jerusalem residents who had temporarily left the city. Speaking on Israel radio this morning, Barkat promised to serve all sectors of Jerusalem's population.

(Soundbite of Nir Barkat's acceptance speech)

Mayor NIR BARKAT (Jerusalem, Israel): (Through Translator) This evening, friends, is dedicated to the dreamers, the ones who dared, the ones who believed that change is possible. Starting tomorrow morning, I will be mayor of all residents of Jerusalem.

GRADSTEIN: But for many of Barkat's supporters, the importance of his victory is that it means the city government is no longer controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have dominated political life here for the past five years. During that time poverty has increased, with Jerusalem becoming the poorest city in Israel. Jerusalem lawyer Yonatan Livni(ph) stayed up until 1 a.m. waiting for the results of the election. He says he hopes Barkat will change the city's priorities and use the municipal budget wisely.

Mr. YONATAN LIVNI (Israeli Lawyer): It hopefully will stop Jerusalem from sliding down the long path of oblivion, because Jerusalem, which is known euphemistically as Jerusalem of Gold, is really Jerusalem of poverty and of dirt.

GRADSTEIN: Jerusalem is also one of the most complicated cities in the world. About a third of the city's residents are Palestinians. Ninety-seven percent of them boycotted yesterday's election, as they have every municipal vote since 1967 when Israeli troops seized East Jerusalem. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the head of a Palestinian think tank, says Palestinians will never accept Israel's unilateral annexation of the Arab sector of the city.

Dr. MAHDI ABDUL HADI (Head and Founder, Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs): It is occupied East Jerusalem. It's part of the occupied territories. International law still applies on it. No country in the world accepted Israeli annexation or unification of Jerusalem.

GRADSTEIN: Palestinians complain that municipal spending in the Arab sector is significantly lower than in the Jewish neighborhoods. Abdul Hadi says Palestinians want to see an Arab municipality alongside the Jewish municipality, working together to run the city. In the near future, Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem could well increase according to Gershom Gorenberg, a dovish Israeli journalist who says Barkat's election could be dangerous.

Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Israeli Journalist): Barkat is also very right wing. He's made it clear that he supports Jewish settlement groups who want to enter Palestinian neighborhoods. Let's put it this way, if he behaves according to what he said in the election campaign, there is a serious risk that he could light a spark in a field of dry brush.

GRADSTEIN: Gorenberg says Barkat's plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem could well be that spark. For NPR News, I'm Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.

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