JERUSALEM—Nir Barkat has a vision for Jerusalem that relies heavily on the pervasive presence of construction cranes.
“Just look,” Barkat said while pointing out cranes and booms on the horizon from the balcony of his City Hall office during a recent interview with The Epoch Times. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight different construction sites. And that’s just what we can see from here.”
The speech is typical for him. As Mayor Barkat nears the end of his first four-year term serving Israel’s capital (he plans to seek another term), the former businessman has become as much a cheerleader for the city as a public servant and politician.
In interviews with the press and public appearances, he almost never misses a chance to hype up the progress that’s been made during his tenure.
“It’s a mission to be a public servant,” he said of governing the city of 800,000 (10 percent of the population of the entire country) of whom 293,000 are Arab. “I love every minute of it, even if it’s difficult. The reason I want to run again is that I want to make a difference. I know I am making a difference. Especially when you feel that serving the public can move the needle in the right direction.”
Although Barkat’s enthusiasm can be infectious and convincing, hard data tracking the city’s progress tells a somewhat different story. According to the most recent data available from the nonprofit Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), from 2008 (the year Barkat began his first term as mayor) through 2010, the needle barely moved. The percentage of completed construction projects in Jerusalem during that period remained almost the same.
But active businesses in the city, a significant measurement of an urban area’s economic strength, showed some improvement during the same period. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of businesses in Jerusalem increased from 33,500 to 34,700. This progress was still less than in the other urban centers of Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Where Jerusalem outshines the rest of the country is in the likelihood that a business, once opened, will survive its first five years.
That’s good news for Barkat, who plans on keeping up the pace.
“I think the growth and opportunity in Jerusalem is huge,” said Barkat. “People are seeking new businesses; that’s what you actually want. You want to see where the growth is and put your money and investments [there].”
Transforming the city with culture
One of Barkat’s current and proudest accomplishments is his statement that Jerusalem had “four times more cultural events” in 2012 than in 2011. The figure is almost impossible to verify, and the municipality is not directly involved with every cultural event, but 2012 did see the introduction of several large-scale cultural events. They included the international Jerusalem Music Conference, the City of Ice, and the continuation of annual events like the Jerusalem Wine Festival, Film Festival, Beer Festival, and Season of Culture, plus many more.
Most of the city’s cultural events are on the west side of the city (excluding the nucleus of the Old City), and not in East Jerusalem, which is predominately inhabited by the city’s 293,000 Arab residents. But Barkat says he sees the city’s diversity as a strength and a point of attraction, not a weakness.
“You walk the streets and you see so many people different than you—you see Muslims, Christians, ultra-orthodox, secular, visitors, locals, and it all works,” Barkat said. “My vision is to expand that.”
Expansion for him means opening Jerusalem for “the world to enjoy.” Barkat wants not only to showcase Jerusalem’s physical tourist sites, but also the city’s values, history, religion, and culture.
“Jerusalem is not only a city of its residents,” he said. “I remember that every day that I wake up.”
He adds that part of his vision for the city is to make it a more inviting and successful place, by creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs.
“Once more entrepreneurs come, the opportunity becomes better and it feeds itself. Culture and tourism feed themselves and scale to the opportunity of the city.”
A draw for tourists
Aside from his heady optimism over construction and future opportunities for business owners, Barkat’s true love seems to be tourism. His administration has set the ambitious goal of attracting 10 million visitors to the city every year. He says that he has already doubled the number of visitors from 2 million a year to 4 million during his first term.
But research and data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism don’t match Barkat’s numbers. According to statistics from the Ministry of Tourism, about 2.8 million people visited Jerusalem in 2011.
The number from the CBS and the JIIS for 2011 is even lower, at 1.34 million tourists. But the number of overnight stays in 2011 was 3.85 million, meaning some individual visitors to Jerusalem spent multiple nights in the city. The data includes domestic and international tourists.
Multiple attempts to clarify claims about tourism numbers were made with Mayor Barkat’s office, but the only response was a mission statement document from the city office of the Jerusalem Development Authority.
Regardless of the number of annual visitors, Jerusalem remains one of the most important destinations in the country, second only to Eilat in the number of tourist hotels, rooms, and revenue from hotels that it generates. Eilat is the country’s most popular tourist destination among Israeli residents.
In 2011, revenue from tourist hotels alone in Jerusalem was more than 1.56 billion new Israeli sheqels (about $400 million), according to the JIIS.
Barkat understands that Jerusalem is a draw because of its value as a unique destination to people the world over, particularly those who are religious.
“People of all faiths and beliefs can go back in their roots to Jerusalem,” he says. “People have a lot of respect for Jerusalem.”
Despite his enthusiasm for sharing the city with visitors, the mayor has not been shy about making very strong public statements that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of Israel and of the Jewish people.” But he admits that people of all walks of life feel strongly about the city.
“There’s no apathy about Jerusalem,” Barkat says. “People’s hearts are connected to the city.”
And he is working to exploit that connection, or what he calls “heart share,” for the benefit of increasing tourism.
Internationally, Barkat spends time building relationships with foreign countries and comparing notes with mayors of other major urban centers, including L.A., Chicago, and New York.
Passion for the job
The challenges Barkat faces—from religious divisions to international pressure over Jerusalem’s legal status and more—don’t seem to faze him in the least.
“I love this city,” he says. “That’s the reason I want to run again. It gives me joy.”
He points out that Jerusalem has had a history of being treated as a treasure, and that esteem will be a determining factor in its future.
“To understand the future and vision of the city, you need to understand the past,” he said. “Jerusalem was never divided into tribes. It was managed by kings. Everyone felt comfortable here, and that’s a philosophy that exists even today.”
Gazing out City Hall’s window at the cranes looming over construction sites, he exudes confidence that he has the city on the right track, and construction projects are evidence of that.
“People build because they believe in the future.”
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