Jerusalem‘s mayor is asking Americans to invest in upgrading his city - one of the poorest in Israel - in a plan he says also will benefit the capital’s 270,000 Palestinian Arabs.
“I’d like to see the world join forces to save the city of Jerusalem,” Nir Barkat told editors and reporters of The Washington Times on Friday.
“I told some members of the U.S. administration, ‘I think the world just raised $5 billion for Gaza. So you only invest after a war. … I will prepare the plans anyway because I believe we should invest in Arabs in East Jerusalem. And why just invest after a war? Maybe we eliminate a war and invest in infrastructure and enable people to improve the quality of life of Jerusalem.”
Mr. Barkat, however, said he could not promise to halt dismantlement of Palestinian housing in East Jerusalem built by Arab residents who have been unable to obtain permits.
“How can I guarantee anybody anything?” he said, asserting that illegal construction in the predominantly Jewish western part of the capital also has been demolished. He said, however, “The process of getting licenses [to build] in East Jerusalem is far from what it should be, and we will fix it.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the demolitions during her recent trip to Israel. Palestinians living in targeted neighborhoods claim they own the land on which their houses sit.
Mr. Barkat, a high-tech millionaire who said he takes only a shekel a year in pay (less than 25 U.S. cents), is adamantly opposed to ceding any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians in a peace agreement but insists his vision for redevelopment would benefit all of its citizens.
Holy to three major faiths, Jerusalem has an annual municipal budget of less than $800 million a year for a population of about 800,000.
It is beset with conflicts not only between Arabs and Jews but also among Jews, including ultraorthodox Jews who make up about 30 percent of the city’s population and demand modest dress and behavior in their expanding neighborhoods.
Mr. Barkat said that many secular Jews have left Jerusalem, which he attributed largely to a lack of housing and jobs.
As a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel acquired the Arab-majority eastern half of the city that contains the remains of the second Jewish Temple’s outer wall, as well as the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Because of its religious significance, the site known by Jews as the Temple Mount and by the Arabs as the Noble Sanctuary is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Mr. Barkat said Jerusalem must remain undivided and under Israeli administration.
“It has to stay undivided, it has to stay a united city, it has to be open for all religions,” he said.
He said that if the city were to fall into Arab hands, its open status could be in jeopardy.
“They have a different attitude,” he said of the Arabs. “I don’t think we should take the risk.”
The Palestinians consider East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. They fear the home demolitions will strengthen Israel’s grip on land around the Old City and could render a two-state compromise in the city impossible.
“There’s no future for any Palestinian state if this happens in East Jerusalem,” said Ahmed Rwaidy, the official responsible for Jerusalem affairs in the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli Jews had no access to their holy sites in Jerusalem when the eastern part of the city was under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967. Various peace plans envision ceding much of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians or turning the city into the capital of two states without dividing it.
On the job for nearly four months, Mr. Barkat has provoked protests because of plans to demolish homes that have sprung up in the Arab neighborhoods of Silwan, Shuafat and Sheik Jarrah. Israel says it needs the land in Silwan for a public park.
In the interview, Mr. Barkat said it was particularly hard for Palestinian residents to obtain building permits in some cases because they do not have the proper paperwork to prove that they own the land on which they wish to build.
“We have a problem in all of Jerusalem; it is not as fast as it should be,” the mayor said. “The time it takes to plan in West Jerusalem is also slow. People leave the city because of the price of housing. In both [East and West Jerusalem], the planning lags.”
Part of Mr. Barkat’s plan is to enlist the expertise of Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in the theory of competitive advantage. Jerusalem’s competitive advantage, Mr. Barkat said, comes primarily from being a destination for religious pilgrims.
“Culture, tourism, biotech, legal services, health services - these are areas Jerusalem can develop already,” Mr. Barkat said.
• Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.