New mayor offers Jerusalem a secular turn
By defeating the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party, Nir Barkat will bring secular politics. But he will likely take a hard line with Palestinians.
A secular Israeli entrepreneur has won the race to serve as mayor of the holy city, wresting control from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and emphasizing the growing divide between Israel's secular and religious culture.Skip to next paragraph
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Nir Barkat, a high-tech investor, scooped up 52 percent of the vote during municipal elections, the results of which were announced early Wednesday.
Mr. Barkat's supporters heralded his victory as an important move toward returning Jerusalem to a place of diversity and tolerance. But the incoming mayor's hard-line stance against making any concessions to Palestinians about the status of East Jerusalem has many wondering what his ascent will mean for the Middle East peace process, expected to regain momentum early next year.
"Victory belongs to all those who love and cherish this special and amazing city of ours, the Jewish people's eternal capital.... I'm aware of the depth of the challenge and the complexity of the mission," Barkat told his supporters at a speech at his headquarters, sometime after 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday. "Now is the time to work together for the good of the city."
Precisely because this is the storied city that Israel calls its eternal capital and Palestinians call occupied, the person who runs Jerusalem's top office is poised to play an important roll in future peace talks.
Across East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, Arab residents routinely sit out of the municipal elections as a symbol of their rejection of Israeli rule. Were they to exercise their right to vote, they would make up close to a third of the electorate. Arab East Jerusalemites are also allowed to vote in Palestinian Authority elections.
Ir Amim, an Israeli organization working for "an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future," is concerned about Barkat's connections with Israeli nationalists who want to settle Jews in East Jerusalem.
Speaking to journalists on Wednesday evening, Barkat indicated that he would address the problem of skyrocketing real estate prices by building apartments in occupied East Jerusalem. "I see no reason not to build apartments in areas that are under our law for people who want to stay in the city.... That's one reason I want to expand Jewish neighborhoods throughout East and West Jerusalem," he said.
Israeli building over the pre-1967 border, which did not include East Jerusalem, is considered illegal by the United Nations, and longstanding US policy officially discourages Israeli building in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank because it would prejudice the outcome of the future peace talks.
"We should expand current Jewish neighborhoods and build affordable housing, but not at the expense of developing Arab neighborhoods," said Barkat.