Oy, Jerusalem

Reading pre-election polls, I used to wonder how a person could intend firmly to vote yet be undecided. If you cared enough to vote, you had to have an opinion. If you didn’t like the candidates, you could still choose the lesser evil – and you were morally obligated to vote for the lesser evil, lest the greater evil win.

I have shed my patronizing attitude. Tomorrow I am supposed to vote for mayor of Jerusalem. I care deeply, and I’m undecided. Indeed, I’m more undecided than I was several weeks ago. I still believe in the obligation to vote for the lesser evil. But which of the major candidates – Nir Barkat or Meir Porush – qualifies for that dubious title?

Let me phrase the dilemma – as my wife did – in terms of risk: There’s an large chance that Porush will fulfill at least some of the the dark predictions of his critics. There’s a slighter lesser risk that Barkat will do what critics fear – but the damage he could cause is much greater. Electing Barkat mayor is akin to hoping that a pyromaniac keeps his matches buried in his pocket. As for the promises Barkat makes, his own statements testify against his ability to provide the goodies.

If I feel any comfort, it’s that people I respect share my dilemma – even if I’m not satisfied with their responses. In Ha’aretz today, Tom Segev writes that a Jerusalem mayor’s success depends on his ability

to get funding from the state. It seems like Porush the politician has a better chance, but to judge by the state’s attitude toward the city, he won’t get much either….

Barkat and Porush together sound like [far rightist] Avigdor Lieberman… But [Porush] expresses himself more cautiously than Barkat.

I’ve heard two arguments for why Barkat’s hard-right positions don’t matter. The first is that the mayor doesn’t doesn’t decide whether to build new Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, or whether to divide the city. Those decisions will be made by the central government.

The flaw in this reasoning is that there are many things the mayor can do, say or support that will inflame or calm the city. In 1996, secular Mayor Ehud Olmert backed the decision to open the Western Wall tunnel. At the late-night opening, a smiling Olmert swung a sledgehammer to break down the wall at the end of the tunnel. He might as well as swung the hammer at a live grenade. A responsible mayor would have avoided any change of the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Olmert helped ignite a small war.

Fast forward to early last year: As international tensions grew and violence was already flaring up in East Jerusalem over the government’s plans for an oversized bridge leading to the Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount, ultra-Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupolianski stepped in, announced that the bridge didn’t have a proper building permit, sent it back to committee, and put out the fire.

And Barkat? At a debate with Porush – according to an Israel Radio report on October 30 – Barkat said he’d intervene in administering the Mount compound because he didn’t like building projects by the Waqf, the Muslim trust that administers the Haram. This wasn’t an off-hand comment. In the classic manner of the secular right, Barkat is entranced by the Mount – and the nearby City of David archaeological dig – as national symbols. An attempt to send in the city building inspectors, rather than to leave the Mount issue to the delicate, secretive negotiations handled by the highest level of government, could light a fire not only in Jerusalem but the whole region.

The second argument for downplaying Barkat’s views is that as a secular mayor, he’ll have to take the leftwing Meretz party into his municipal coalition, and Meretz will keep him leashed. With Porush, Meretz will be in the opposition.

This is the best argument I’ve heard for Barkat, and it’s still pretty weak. Barkat is running with the support of the Labor party, but his public statements show no concern for his Labor partners. His first choices for coalition partners will be the pro-settler parties of the right, especially the religious right. In the last term, Barkat’s own party in the city council split. His demonstrative disrespect for political bargaining provides little ground for believing that he’ll know how to hold a coalition together, or that he’ll worry about Meretz’s views before fulfilling his promise to support Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab neighborhoods. If Meretz enters Barkat’s coalition, it may soon have to decide whether to jettison its concerns about East Jerusalem in order to stay in.

A word about management: At a mostly-useless public meeting called last night by Peace Now to discuss the left’s dilemma in the election, the representative of Barkat’s ticket attacked Porush as someone who’d been involved in the dirty business of politics since age 12. We’re supposed to prefer Barkat because he came from the business world. This fits Barkat’s own line, and it’s almost as silly as the assumption by some speakers at the meeting that “secular” and “enlightened” are synonyms.

Contrary to what my blogging partner, Haim, says, I don’t have an “abiding suspicion of rich businessmen.” I just have no more reason to think that someone who made a killing in the high-tech bubble will be a good mayor than I do to think that an ex-football player or a former physician will be. The skill set is unrelated. The preference for businessmen fits a Reagan-Thatcher-era mindset, still prevalent in Israel, that regards the market as clean and effective and politics as nasty. It’s a mindset that has dissuaded talented Israelis from entering politics, and it has no basis. Reading the last two month’s papers, does anyone still think the entrepreneurs know how to run the world?

On the strictly municipal level, Barkat and Porush each promise to help one community at the expense of the other. They are both deeply “sectorial” candidates. Barkat is likely to be ineffective. His ideas of how to build the city’s economy are fantasies. (He promises to bring 10 million tourists a year to a city known internationally for violent conflict.)

Porush is likely to be more effective, aiming for help from the central government. He is also likely to be more concerned with the welfare and priorities of a community to which I don’t belong, the ultra-Orthodox. Neither has the ability of Teddy Kollek to build coalitions among the Jews, and neither has the relatively restrained colonial attitude that Kollek had toward East Jerusalem. Both see the religious Zionist right as the swing vote, and are likely to give that community’s politicians control of the public school system. (In other words, both Haim and Ha’aretz are wrong about the elections. Unfortunately, no one is right.)

The last option is to vote for the protest candidate of the marginal left, Dan Biron. I’ve never liked such choices. It means abdicating the decision of who among the major candidates is the lesser evil. Then again, both Barkat and Porush have ignored the left in this election, treating the religious Zionist right as the only real swing vote. Barkat assumes that the 15 percent or so of Jerusalem voters who preferred the left in the last national election are his captive audience because he’s secular. As a long-term strategy, a vote for Biron could be seen as a warning to the secular candidate in the next election not to take the left for granted. I’m not convinced by this line of reasoning, but as long as I’m contemplating the options, I mention it.

Tom Segev’s long-term solution seems to be leaving Jerusalem. I still love this crazy town too much to consider that option. But in the next five years, while we hope that the mayor doesn’t do too much damage, we on the left should learn the lesson: The national parties have abandoned Jerusalem. The fact that a candidate is secular doesn’t mean we should regard him as sensible or qualified. If we want better political choices, we can’t wait for someone else to supply them.

6 thoughts on “Oy, Jerusalem”

  1. Gershom, you argue cogently–this is the most convincing case of its type I’ve yet seen. But you ignore some important facts. One central one is that as an MK, Porush has been one of the most enthusiastic backers of settlement activity. Another is that the city education system is *already* controlled by the right-wing national religious machine–I know this from my endless meetings with education czar Bentzi Nemet in my efforts to save two of Jerusalem’s pluralistic religious schools. Finally, you don’t address the all-pervasive corruption that has been one of the trademarks of the last five years of haredi rule in the city. When I was heading Kehilat Yedidya’s building committee, I was told point blank by our contractor that we would have to pay a “macher” (that is, pay off a haredi party hack) to get a certain permit we needed. I refused, and Barkat was among those who helped us get through the labyrinth. I am deeply, deeply concerned by Barkat’s play to the nationalist right and am not indifferent to the damage he can do if he is elected. But the only viable option, as far as I can see, is to elect Barkat and then to put as much pressure on him as we can to demonstrate that a healthy part of his constituency will have no part of his settlement agenda.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful discussion of your confusion – and ours. I agree with the basics of everything you say.

    I guess that we fall on different sides of the divide about which is the greater threat to our way of life.

    While you make the case for the potential dangers of the right wing, I am more concerned about the corruption in government and the lack of the due process that exists in the city (and the rest of the country too, but that’s another kettle of fish) – which is one of our fundamental rights.

    The everyday insidiousness with which the process works here is pervasive and constant. Just to mention a different Olmert scary story – not the Kotel tunnels, but the disastrous Holyland development. And the problems we faced under Lupolianski, in our struggle to develop a viable alternative for a pluralistic girls religious high school.

    So a vote for Porush is letting the cat guard – not the luxury “cream”, but – the essential bread and cheese. Barkat may or may not make things better – although his record in city council gives us reason for hope – but Porush will certainly be more of the same, if not worse.

    I didn’t mean to turn this into an election day diatribe, just sharing some of my deliberations. Good luck voting today.

  3. You are obviously incapable of running a city you have stolen and have no historical claim to. My vote for al Quds mayor is Khaled Mashal. He will send you packing to your real homeland. Las Vegas, city of tackiness and dollars

  4. Haim and Gershon-
    I hope you read Raed Kami’s comment. It is reflective Palestinian opinion (I don’t know if he is Palestinian himself but it is a eloquent expression of their viewpoint), so this should enlighten you as to the viability of the proposals of the Left to “share Jerusalem”.

  5. Porush was endorsed by leading anti-zionist Avram (Ibrahim) Burg. That is enough to convince me to vote for Barkat. If Porush wanted to hand over the Old City to the Palestinians, and allow the Temple Mount to become a Qassam launching site, Meretz would pose no obstacle, as their EU funders would increase funding for that goal

  6. I voted for Barkat because I am of the opinion that of all the candidates, he is the one most likely to run the city as a business and not as a personal fiefdom from which to aggrandize money and power while handing out ‘favors’ and exercising protexia on behalf of his supporters.

    Jerusalem’s borders will be decided by the Knesset and maybe even by the People, if we get to vote on this and the Golan, so I’m far less concerned about national implications and much more concerned about this being a viable city for everyone, not just haredim.

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