JERUSALEM – What happens in Jerusalem rarely stays in Jerusalem. That is why anyone who cares about Israel and the Middle East should be alarmed by the composition of the city’s new municipal government.
Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, was re-elected in October with 51% of the vote. For many who supported him, he was the lesser of two evils: his rival was backed by two powerful politicians implicated in corruption scandals. Voters did not consider Barkat a success on the issues that most of them care about – housing costs, clean streets, or conflicts with the ultra-Orthodox; but at least he was someone they already knew. They expected no surprises.
They were wrong. In forming his new coalition, the first agreement that Barkat signed was with a new local party called “United Jerusalem.” Though headed by a veteran politician formerly of the National Religious Party, the second position on United Jerusalem’s candidate list was filled by Aryeh King, a far-right activist who ran for the Knesset (parliament) with a party called Strength to Israel. Nationally, Strength to Israel failed to win enough votes to enter the Knesset, and the courts banned some of its campaign material for being racist. Yet in Jerusalem, King and the local version of his party won two seats in the 30-seat city council.
King is not to be feared just for his words. He launched a series of legal proceedings to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrach neighborhood and elsewhere, and established a fund (backed by donations from wealthy, right-wing Americans) to buy land from Palestinians in order to give it to Israelis – sort of a racist Robin Hood in reverse. He also won the backing of a small group of extremist rabbis who declared that selling or renting apartments to non-Jews is forbidden and treasonous (one of the rabbis is under investigation for these and other statements).
In his recent campaign, King proposed barring Arabs from city parks and, somewhat more ambitiously, called for preparations to construct the Third Temple. To this end, he encourages Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, today the site of two of Islam’s most important mosques. Asked in a recent interview about the similarities between him and the late Meir Kahane, whose racist party was banned, King noted a close ideological affinity (though he pointed out that Kahane’s movement was messianic, whereas his own is practical).
King’s views and actions are well documented. So Barkat’s decision to invite him into the municipal-government coalition is extremely disturbing, as is the willingness of almost all other putatively mainstream parties to approve his appointment without protest.
The consequences are likely to be serious. For starters, although Jerusalem is usually remarkably calm, given its great mix of populations, the kind of provocations for which King is known will increase street-level tension. In November, for example, King and a group of his followers disrupted a gathering of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists by shouting into a megaphone that Arabs should go to Gaza or Beirut; only police intervention prevented a riot.
Moreover, Barkat has appointed King to serve as a representative in the city planning and building council and as a replacement representative in the higher regional council. That will make it easier for him to displace Palestinian families living in East Jerusalem, and he is expected to use his voice in city management to back the acceleration of construction for Israeli settlers there.
Building for Israelis in East Jerusalem is illegal under international law, raises tensions, and, by making it ever harder to define the lines separating the city into the capitals of two states, complicates efforts to reach a peace agreement. Barkat has always supported such construction but was stopped in the past by forces within the previous coalition and the national government. Now, however, with King pressing from within the municipal coalition (and with a far-right construction and housing minister in the national government), Barkat is likely to escalate his efforts to expand settlements in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods.
Giving a person like King responsibility in managing Jerusalem means increasing tensions within the city, aggravating the Palestinian population’s greatest fears, and encouraging Israeli settlers to develop new outposts, thereby erecting new obstacles to peace. His behavior in office should be closely watched, and no provocation should be left without a response.
Barkat has defended his choice of partners by saying that he wants a broad coalition and that he does not believe in boycotting anyone, even King. This is wrong: some people’s views should not be given legitimacy. Giving racism a voice in Jerusalem’s administration is a mistake that must be corrected – ideally before tensions in the city escalate further.
Laura Wharton, a member of the Jerusalem City Council since 2008, teaches political science at Hebrew University