Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat spoke out forcefully during an interview with the BBC on Friday, saying that splitting the capital as part of a future peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority would simply not work.
Speaking on the program “Hardtalk with Tim Franks,” Barkat said that he is committed to improving the situation for all residents of Jerusalem – Jews, Christians and Arabs alike.
Barkat called UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s criticism of Israel for its plans to build in Jerusalem’s Jewish Gilo neighborhood a “double standard,” adding: “Anywhere in the world, would you dare to say that Jews or non-Jews or blacks or people of a certain faith are not allowed to build somewhere? The reality is that in the last week we’ve discussed and will be approving 1,400 units for Arab residents, but they don’t report that. The media only report Jewish building. Even international law cannot discriminate between Jews and non-Jews.”
He sharply contradicted the host’s assertion that Jerusalem is “occupied territory” by saying, “This is not occupied territory. From whom? From the Jordanians? From the British? From the Turks? Anywhere you put a shovel in the ground you find Jewish roots in Jerusalem.
“The vast majority of Arabs in east Jerusalem prefer a united city,” he continued. “Poll the public. They will tell you. The Arabs – the Muslims and the Christians – prefer a united city than, G-d forbid, a split city that will never work. There’s no working model in the world of a split city that ever worked. They all fail. They’re dysfunctional. Why go there when you know that it will never work and it’s not good for the future? It focuses on the divide rather than the common denominator.”
Barkat said that the world does not understand the Middle East and that the true challenge is to get the world to understand what is happening on the ground. “When you learn and understand the city, you understand that it can never be divided, not practically and not ideologically,” he said.
“The truth is that there are gaps in standards between various parts of the city, but if you look at the west side of the city in Jewish neighborhoods there are things that are missing compared to other places,” said Barkat. “The challenge is to admit them and to fix them. I’m committed [to doing so] and so is the Israeli government. We’ve demonstrated in the last two-and-a-half years a significant growth. I am a big believer in a united city, and therefore I’m totally committed to all residents of Jerusalem – Muslim, Christians, and Jews.”
Responding to the host’s question about 75 percent of the Arab population in Jerusalem being below the poverty line, Barkat noted that 50 percent of the Jewish population is also below the poverty line, and that the way to fix it is by strengthening the economy.
“Our economy will grow, and is growing, through culture and tourism and through health and life sciences,” he said. “These are areas that we’ve been working on in order to improve our economy. The challenge is to get more jobs into Jerusalem. When it rains, it rains on everybody. Tourism last year alone picked up 24 percent in hotel occupancy, and culture and tourism employ more Arabs than Jews.”
Regarding building plans, Barkat said the city’s master plan calls for “the expansion of Arab neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods. We cannot allow people to build by race or religion. We anticipate that Arabs will live in Arab neighborhoods and Jews will live Jewish neighborhoods. The master plan talks about an honest and fair expansion of the current neighborhoods, because if we don’t plan expansion in a smart way then Arabs will build illegally and Jews will not build and leave the city.”
He said he believes the ratio of Jews to Arabs in the city will stay at 65 percent for Jews and 35 percent for Arabs, noting, “The number of Arab residents in Jerusalem is rising because the quality of life in Jerusalem for them is better.”
Franks noted that the city’s new master plan calls for a 60 percent Jewish population and 40 percent Arab population and asked Barkat if he believes this target is reasonable.
“It’s a theoretical discussion,” said Barkat. “The reality is that I, as mayor of all of the people of Jerusalem, have to allow apartments for Christians, Muslims and Jews.”
Barkat admitted, however, that he prefers to maintain the current ratio, yet noted, “There’s room for everybody in Jerusalem - Arabs, hareidi, national religious and secular people. I would like to serve them all. I’m not arguing who should be on top or should be on the bottom. I’m arguing that right now, they way I view the city, I have to provide solutions to all sectors, and if the proportions right now are X, we might as well leave them as X. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not against anybody; it’s for the benefit of all citizens of Jerusalem.”
Regarding the idea of a two-state solution, the mayor said that “It depends. I hear what Hamas teaches in schools. I hear what the Palestinian Authority teaches in schools. They’re not teaching for love. They’re not claiming that they want co-existence. Hamas is not saying that. Hamas has a very clear charter: they want to get rid of us. Would you make a deal with someone who wants to get rid of you?”
He noted that in the long-term, should there be a party on the other side with whom Israel could negotiate, a two-state solution could work “with certain limitations,” but that in any case Jerusalem must remain the capital of the Jewish state.