Q&A With Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat

Nir Barkat, 55, has served as Mayor of Jerusalem since 2008 and was re-elected in 2013 for a second five-year term. Born in Jerusalem, he holds a degree in computer science from the Hebrew University. Barkat launched a successful software company, start-up incubator and venture firm before entering politics, first in 2003 in a failed mayoral attempt, followed by service on the city council and then his successful mayoral bids. Barkat describes himself as a political independent, having received the endorsement of the Labor (left) party as well as several Likud (right) figures during the last election. He endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for Prime Minister in 2013 and 2015. Barkat prefers to focus on economic development rather than party politics and under his administration, Jerusalem has grown substantially, adding public transportation including a light rail, and boosting tourism with a constant series of art festivals, a Jerusalem marathon, and a Formula One exhibition drive through Jerusalem. The general consensus of Jerusalemites I spoke with, including many who characterize Barkat's politics as "right-wing" compared to their own, feel that he has been a good mayor for Jerusalem, and that life is better in Jerusalem due to his administration. Barkat has been criticized for ignoring the encroachment of the Ultra-religious, and as imposing a de-facto Israelization of all of Jerusalem, to the benefit of its Israeli citizens, without providing the same level of attention to the Palestinian Jerusalemites - a position Barkat disputes in our conversation below. We met in his office at City Hall in early June.

2015-07-24-1437717519-8720427-com_barkatnir_051112584_270_166_c1.jpg Tom Teicholz: You're recently re-elected to your second term as Mayor of Jerusalem. What are your priorities and what are your goals?

Mayor Nir Barkat: To make Jerusalem an even more attractive place for young people, for business, for visitors. It's about exploiting the huge potential [that] the City of Jerusalem has. I'd break that down into sub-goals: First, economic growth is critical; so, it's about the economy. I'm using the models of Professor Michael Porter from Harvard Business School plus Professor Richard Florida -

Tom Teicholz: They are part of your just announced 5-year plan for investing in culture in Jerusalem?

Mayor Barkat: Right, it's based on things we've been doing already but taking them to the next level. First, I want to turn the City around, in terms of it's being attractive and being very competitive relative to other metropolitan centers in the country. We are focusing on tourism and culture; integrating culture and tourism. The idea is that we have noticed that when we boosted culture in our city it actually creates a very strong, powerful attraction both locally in Israel, and for international tourism that feeds culture and is fed from it.

Tom Teicholz: When you say culture, what do you mean?

Mayor Barkat: It is a combination of a few things. It's first of all the Light Festival, which is an international festival. The International Film Festival. The marathon which is international; we have 26,000 runners. The Formula One Road Show; an array of festivals and events. Then side-by-side to that it's investing in infrastructure. We now have the largest sports complex in the Country. We've expanded Teddy Stadium.. The new arena that we built is the largest in the Country. Now, [we can] host national and international events. We hosted the 19th Maccabi Games and we just announced this week that we will host the 20th Maccabi Games in 2017. We're hosting an array of international European championships. We just hosted Euro 21 Championship in soccer last summer.

Now after we've invested in the infrastructure [in Jerusalem] we can have scale to have much, much more. We're heavily investing in cultural institutions, now in culture and art, [and in] creative people. The creative class is high up on our agenda.

Tom Teicholz: What's an example of investment in the creative class?

Mayor Barkat: We have more than tripled the investments we're making yearly in cultural institutions [and now ] they have more capacity to take on more people. We are now integrating [our] night life with artists. You will see artists, [such as] singers and musicians spread around night life in the City. We are vertically integrating, many, many artists into the education system, into the business world. We've learned from other cities and other places in the world [using] the model of both Florida and Porter. Actually, the plan that we have is to take that initial success that we have already, and a change of atmosphere, and we're going to triple our investments to boost it, make it even faster.

Tom Teicholz: Tell me about the investment in infrastructure for television and film production.

Mayor Barkat: The way we work is similar to New York. We have tax incentives that make it extra worthwhile but we have amazing sites: the on-site locations in Jerusalem are very competitive. Side-by-side to that we now know how to host films. We've been investing in the film fund in Jerusalem and in the tax incentives and grants for international films. Thank God it's doing very well; you see consistent growth... We're going to invest in the studios and it's already budgeted. We will do whatever it takes to be more and more competitive from year to year.

Tom Teicholz: That being said, given that the demographics of Jerusalem are divided among the secular, Orthodox, and Arab population in East Jerusalem, how does the investment in culture play out, if the observant and Arab populations don't participate?

Mayor Barkat: They do. This week I was in our new Pais Arena, we had a major Ultra-Orthodox singer come and sing. Yesterday, and two days ago, we had a show using the arena for the Ultra- Orthodox people. Two weeks ago we had Christians and tonight we have basketball of the Yerushalem [team]. It's multi-purpose; it turns out that people may have a different perspective of what culture means, but all sectors are interested in culture. It's part of any person's life; art, culture, music is actually needed in all sectors.

My philosophy's to enable people to have their culture their way, so it's actually very, very interesting. There's cross-correlation and cross-learning from the different sectors, second to no other place in the world. I'm really excited to see how things are turning out because people look at other sectors and say, "Hey, we want something similar to that but tailored to our needs," and that's what we're doing.

We're progressing and scaling and you have more culture, more consideration, more creativity. Rather than stepping on each other's toes, you see that we do more, that we consider more, and it's more creative.

Tom Teicholz: I know you're the Mayor of all Jerusalem but I spent some time in East Jerusalem on this trip. There is an active economic boycott of Israel and cultural institutions there won't accept Israeli State or Jerusalem municipal funds. How are you confronting or dealing with that an issue?

Mayor Barkat: It's not an issue. We have Ultra-Orthodox [organizations] that don't take national funds, and we have secular people that don't take [funds], or some of the national religious people that won't [accept] national funds for different reasons. People can have their own reasons [for not accepting State or municipal funds]. {However,] the majority, vast majority of people, are straight-forward and are interested in improving the quality of life [in Jerusalem]. When you honestly come and are willing to share in the growth of the City with all constituencies then 9 out of 10 times, the answer is yes. The one that says no, it's his loss and we respect people's [right to do so]. Don't think that this is something that is necessarily just the Arab [population].

Tom Teicholz: I do know that there is criticism that East Jerusalem doesn't get the same level of municipal services. I had dinner at the home of Um Sami and her Palestinian village in the middle of Jerusalem doesn't have a post office, or a bus stop, or garbage pick-up. Um Sami asked me to ask you if you will help her village have these services?

Mayor Barkat: This morning I was in Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem with the chief comptroller of the country. In one of the new schools we delivered in 2013, we sat in the school and we presented to the chief comptroller of the Country our plans for the next, for what we've done in the last few years which is really substantial. We recognize that there's still gaps; and we've demonstrated how we intend to close those gaps.

The gaps are not only with some of the Arab neighborhoods. We have gaps in Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and other neighborhoods of Jerusalem. If you compare Jerusalem to [other cities in Israel] the gaps we have throughout the City are comparable to other metropolis centers. Amongst is the gaps that we have to close, relative to I think where we should be. We have gaps in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. I recognize that; but I can demonstrate what we are doing to decrease those gaps.

Tom Teicholz: For example?

Mayor Barkat: For example, [take] schools. If you look at the number of schools that we both built and renovated in the last few years, we have more than tripled; it's 4, 5 times faster today than in the past. My predecessor built 230 classrooms in 5 years in all sectors of the City. In my first term we built 870 classrooms throughout the City. This term, my goal is to build 2000 classrooms. I'm telling you [that to get it done within] a system like the city that did not know how to build classrooms [the challenge is not] because of politics, it's because of, I think, management challenges; leadership and management challenges.

Today, you see more and more cranes in the air all around the City, and a lot of it is focused on building schools and kindergartens. Last week I was in Beit Hanina, Sur Baher and Beit Safafa [Arab Towns along the Green Line]. I travel to all the neighborhoods to see how we could boost the processes. I'm very happy with -- not with the situation we're in -- but with the trend we're in. I think the trend demonstrates our closing gaps. I recognize that there are still gaps to close.

Tom Teicholz: There are a plans to finish the improved highway to Tel Aviv, and for a high speed train that will make the trip from Tel Aviv in a half an hour -

Mayor Barkat: Twenty minutes, yes.

Tom Teicholz: Is that a good thing for Jerusalem?

Mayor Barkat: It's a very good thing. Also, [we are building] 2 new light-rail lines [in Jerusalem], and 3 extensions of the light-rail, and a cable car that will help us make the Old City more accessible. These network of light-rails positions Jerusalem, by far, as the most progressive and developed city for public transportation [in Israel]. It will enable people to go to the Old City; it will make the Old City very accessible for more tourism. It makes all the major neighborhoods of Jerusalem [more accessible]: the work areas, the leisure areas, the hospitals, the Hebrew Campuses all connected by a network of light-rails.

I come from a world -- I'm an entrepreneur, I'm business-oriented and I know, everyone knows, that [upgraded public transport] translates to a much, much better economy. Scalability of the City through accessibility, through public transportation will make everything more economically viable. [ and allow] Jerusalem to cope with my goal of having 10 million tourists a year.

Tom Teicholz: Where are you in reaching that goal?

Mayor Barkat: We were at 4 million just before the last round of violence [last summer's Gaza war] and I think we're practically back there now. The City recovered quite quickly from that bump in the road. In order to get to those numbers you got to make Jerusalem very accessible and we're making those investments with the national government.

Tom Teicholz: Is Jerusalem becoming too big or growing too much, with ghost buildings and too many overpopulated neighborhoods?

Mayor Barkat: Not at all. [Jerusalem is] is 830,000 people strong. We know how to build it and scale it to about a million people in the next 2, 3 decades. It goes through expansion of current neighborhoods. It goes through city renewal of old neighborhoods. It goes through making the City more effective by condensing-

Tom Teicholz: Will it still be affordable?

Mayor Barkat: The City will always be, thank God, in high demand. Naturally, with high demand, the prices are not going to be cheaper relative to other places [in Israel]. The biggest challenge on pricing is the total amount of supply of new apartments. Prices in Jerusalem are linked to the national prices; they all go up or down together. The challenge is to create more housing on the national level. Once that happens, supply and demand will do its job and prices in Jerusalem will decrease like everywhere else.

Tom Teicholz: How are you facing the challenge of keeping young people in Jerusalem and getting people to pursue careers in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv?

Mayor Barkat: I think we got good news on that front, actually strategic good news. if from 2001 to 2008, that's 8 years. When you do a head count of students in the k-12 grades education system of the Zionist sector, we shrunk 12% in absolute numbers. Not only we did not grow, but we shrunk in absolute numbers. That is, by the way, the reason I decided to retire from my business career and see if we could turn that trend around. From 2009 to 2014 we are up 6%. That's a huge deal. When we had to open up, 3 years in a row, 25 new Kindergartens year, after year, after year that is consistent change; change in trend.

Today the Zionist sector of the City, when you do the head count of number of kids, is scaling at the same rate as the Arab sector and the Ultra-Orthodox sector which is very different than in the past. I think that's really strategically interesting good news; it's not one on the account of the other, it's one next to other, which is my goal.

The second litmus test is the number of startups that decide to choose Jerusalem as their location. Until 2012 we had an average of about a dozen new start-ups that chose Jerusalem as a destination to open up new stores, which is a very low number. In 2013 I think the rhythm and the atmosphere has changed: it went up to 40; in '14 it went up to 120. Look at entrepreneur.com and Time Magazine, by their independent view; Jerusalem is the number one emerging tech hub in the world. I think that's quite remarkable and it's fueling itself; it's taking a life of its own.

You see very nice progress on the business side and the headcount and the kids. Lots of city renewal, lots of communal life. The City is actually deep into the process of turnaround and make the City more attractive.

Tom Teicholz: Second to the last question. Israel's success as "Start-up Nation" and its track record of success through innovation stands in marked contrast to the contentious and less than productive state of Israeli politics. Given your background, do you see potential for a new approach for Israeli politics based on the start-up/venture mentality?

Mayor Barkat: It's hard for me to say [because] we have not yet have critical mass in the public sector for [people coming to government from] the high-tech sector... but I can tell you that I feel that going to the public sector with skills, entrepreneurial, and classic management, and global exposure because the high-tech sector is very globally exposed. You come with an array of skills that can make a big difference; it's a big competitive advantage in public service. Naturally, there's some disadvantages that you have to probably shave on your own skin (meaning learn from your mistakes). I am extremely happy that I made the decision to jump into public service side and I intend to stay.

Tom Teicholz: Last question, for the L.A. audience, if you could speak directly both to your audience in L.A. and the The film and TV community, what would you like to say to them?

Mayor Barkat: People that do come here from L.A. find a wide [range of] experiences. The City is very different, very advanced. We have to combined the oldest with the newest. People that walk the streets of the City can't believe their eyes that Muslims manage the Muslim sites, the Christians the Christian sites, the Jews the Jewish sites, the openness [of Jersualem]. By the way, in terms of security, when I fly to Los Angeles I pray to come back home safely because [LA] is many times more dangerous. The murder rate in LA is 6.3. per 100,000; while in Jerusalem, it was 0.5 before last year's war and at the height of the war it was only 1.5 - still 4 We're 4 times safer per capita than Los Angeles.... We have amazing business opportunities for the film production business, and we have excellent relationship that is growing with [LA's creative] community.

For those that care and feel about Jerusalem, you're shareholders, so come and help, and partner, and enjoy. I'm sure you're going to come home back to Los Angeles a very satisfied customer.

Portions of this interview appeared in print in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles