Nir Barkat wants to be mayor of Jerusalem. It would be an impressive job title. On a world scale, Jerusalem is a small city, with fewer people than Austin or Indianapolis. But it is the capital of Israel -- and of three religions' myths. Teddy Kollek, who served as mayor for 28 years, was better known internationally than many heads of state. His successor, Ehud Olmert, went on to become Israel's prime minister.
Barkat, however, is a singularly unimpressive candidate for the job. For his supporters in the Nov. 11 election, the former high-tech entrepreneur's appeal is purely in his identity as a secular Jew. For them, he represents an opportunity to end the ultra-Orthodox political hegemony of recent years in the Holy City.
But the culture war is a distraction. The nicest appellation for Barkat that I've heard among political activists is "shallow." His views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hard-line right-wing. In fact, Barkat is the embodiment of the real cause of Jerusalem's steady urban decay. The 41-year experiment of forcibly binding Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalem has not only failed, it has rendered the mayor's job so unattractive that no qualified secular candidate wants it. Barkat's candidacy is one more proof that a city united against itself cannot stand.
This week Barkat gave a briefing for foreign journalists. Beforehand, one Jerusalem political activist compared Barkat's intellectual abilities to Sarah Palin's. After the briefing, I felt the comparison was unfair -- to Palin. Perfectly groomed, spouting fractured sentences about "vision," "process," and his experience in the "global marketplace," Barkat resembles a power-point presentation with slick graphics and garbled texts.
Barkat opened with a boilerplate endorsement of Jerusalem as "the united capital of Israel." Asked if he supported Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods -- a tactic of far-right groups that has dramatically increased tensions in the city -- he said, "Definitely yes." He likewise endorsed the exclusively Jewish account of Jerusalem's history presented by religious rightists who manage an archeological site at the City of David, inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. "That's where I connect to my Jewish roots," he said.
To reverse the city's economic decline, Barkat asserted he would bring 10 million tourists a year to Jerusalem (a seven-fold increase over current numbers), and attract high-tech and biotech companies. Why, I asked, would the private sector invest in the city, given the risk factors in a city riven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
"Because it's the right thing to do," he answered. "If we look at vision, and where Jerusalem must be, that is the right thing to do. And I believe that Jerusalem has to be managed with a vision, and I think that the world has to play ball and help us strengthen and build the city of Jerusalem. It's a very simple answer." Oh, I thought. Just tell them to do it.
To understand how out of touch Barkat is, and why he still stands a reasonable chance of becoming mayor, look at the fault lines running through the Holy City. Jerusalem is home to 730,000 people. About 250,000 are Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War to unify the city. Though East Jerusalemites didn't become Israeli citizens, they were given the right to vote in municipal elections -- with the hope that their participation would legitimize annexation. Precisely to avoid doing so, they've stayed away from polling booths. In a long march toward Palestinian independence, that decision makes sense, but it has come at a price. No one in city politics loses a vote for ignoring East Jerusalem.
The Arab side of town is a neglected stepchild. Streets lack sidewalks, parks are rare, schools are short on classrooms. City Hall spends only a tenth of its budget on the city's Palestinians, though they are 34 percent of the population, according to attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations in the city.
Unlike Palestinians elsewhere in the West Bank, East Jerusalemites can work and travel inside Israel. But the Israeli security fence cuts through the east side of the city in places, so that some residents must wait at checkpoints to work, study, or get to a hospital. Acquiring a building permit is difficult; housing is in short supply. For practical purposes, East Jerusalem is the first-class section of occupied territory.
The Jewish population is split as well. A third of the city's Jews are ultra-Orthodox, a group that deliberately segregates itself from the Israeli mainstream in order to live by a stringent, anti-modern interpretation of Judaism. Few men and no women serve in the army, a basic rite of civil belonging for other Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox women have an average of eight children, three times as many as other Israeli women, according to Dr. Maya Choshen of the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies.
For electoral purposes, the ultra-Orthodox population figures are deceptive twice over. Because so much of the community is under voting age, only about a quarter of the city's Jewish voters are ultra-Orthodox. But it is a mobilized constituency, with a turnout of over 80 percent. Since Kollek retired in 1993, the ultra-Orthodox have dominated local politics. They put Olmert in the mayor's office. When he moved on to national politics in 2003, they elected an ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski. This year, they are running Meir Porush, a 53-year-old veteran Knesset member whose father and grandfather were prominent ultra-Orthodox politicians.
Economically, Jerusalem is the poorest of Israel's 50 largest towns. Outside of tourism, the private sector is distant rumor. High-tech and finance, the engines of Israel's economic growth, are in Tel Aviv. Young adults are abandoning Jerusalem. A backlash against ultra-Orthodox rule is building among Jerusalem's other Jewish residents, who see Lupolianski as funneling patronage and City Hall's meager budget to his own constituency. Barkat is running on that backlash. A rare survey on the race, performed nearly two months ago, showed Barkat leading Porush by an overwhelming 55 percent to 29 percent. But the potential gap in voter turnout between the two camps makes surveys about as reliable as reading tarot cards.
But the culture war is a fight over deck chairs on the Titantic. Jerusalem's real problem is that it straddles a national conflict. Tourists are skittish about visiting a place that regularly makes the news for political tension and terrorism incidents. Foreign investors share that feeling. "Cities in conflict -- Belfast, Nicosia, Berlin in its day -- fail economically," says Dr. Moshe Amirav, a former Jerusalem city councilor and today head of the public policy department at Beit Berl college near Tel Aviv.
Israeli cities depend heavily on funds from the national government. In Jerusalem, Amirav points out, the government has invested in building Jewish neighborhoods on the east side of the city in order to cement the annexation, rather than in economic development. Yet socially and politically, the annexation has failed. The division between Jews and Palestinians in the city has only deepened. For Palestinians, establishing their capital in East Jerusalem is the most basic requirement of achieving independence.
The city's future, as Amirav asserts, depends on agreement of a two-state solution -- including the political division of Jerusalem into two capitals. Only then would the conflict cease defining life in the city. Urban decisions could be made to serve urban needs rather than national claims.
Without peace, the major Israeli parties have despaired of finding candidates interested in the thankless job of mayor. Barkat has stepped into the breach. But to the limited extent that the mayor can affect the city's future, Barkat appears intent on policies that would further inflame Israeli-Arab relations.
It's striking to compare Barkat's views with those of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who, like Amirav, began his career on the political right. In a recent interview -- perhaps his last as prime minister -- Olmert affirmed that he'd been "the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city." Changing that position, he said, "contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories." Nonetheless, he asserted that "we have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories -- including in Jerusalem."
Olmert has never been clearer about the price of peace -- perhaps because he is a lame duck, no longer trying to hold a coalition together, perhaps because he has shed illusions during the negotiations of the past year with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. In either case, he won't be making the critical decisions about the city's future. Nor, for that matter, will the next mayor, who runs City Hall but does not negotiate borders.
The choice of whether to divide Jerusalem to save it will be made in the diplomatic triangle of Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States, needed as sponsor and facilitator of peace talks. The next step depends on whether Olmert's likely successor, Tzipi Livni, will be as realistic as he has become, and on whether Abbas can retain domestic support for negotiating.
It will depend, as well, on whether the next U.S. president understands the need for deep American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Most of all, it requires recognition that "eternally united Jerusalem" is a slogan that is destroying the city it purportedly comes to preserve.