Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is no extreme right-wing extremist. A generally non-ideological and secular Jew who served in the paratroopers, he was a successful high-tech venture capitalist before entering politics. Barkat’s career has, to date, been solely centered on the city of Jerusalem. He was elected mayor of the city only days after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in November 2008. The important fact about Barkat’s win was that he beat an ultra-Orthodox candidate, a symbolic as well as a tangible victory for those who hope to keep Israel’s capital from becoming a Haredi shtetl.
In his years on the city council and now as mayor, Barkat’s focus has been on development and improved services but he also understands that the city’s future depends on it remaining united. If it is once again divided, as it was during Jordan’s illegal occupation of half of it from 1948 to 1967, the city will be an embattled and ghetto-ized backwater with no hope of attracting investment. Thus, he is adamantly opposed to those who want to make Arab neighborhoods into a capital of a putative Palestinian state, despite the fact that even the “moderate” Palestinian leadership won’t sign a deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. Dividing the city is, he says, like putting a “Trojan Horse” within Israel. He is also appalled, as are most Israelis, at the idea of treating the post-67 Jewish neighborhoods, where over 200,000 Jews live, as illegal settlements by an Obama administration that is demanding a building freeze in Jerusalem. He rightly sees Israeli acquiescence to this unreasonable demand as a blow to Israel’s sovereignty over its capital as well as a threat to the Jews of Jerusalem.
These are points that Barkat has been making to the press and the public during a visit this week to Washington. The reaction from the Obama administration has been chilly but perhaps not as chilly as that of the Israeli Embassy. The New York Times, which contrasted the chummy reception that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak got here this week from the Obami with that given to Barkat, noted that a spokesman from the Israeli embassy was at pains to distance the embassy from Barkat.
“For us, it’s lousy timing,” said a spokesman for the embassy, Jonathan Peled. He tried to put things in perspective, comparing Mr. Barkat to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty of Washington. “He’s not going to be the one negotiating peace with the Palestinians, in the same way that Fenty is not going to be the one negotiating the Start agreement with Russia,” Mr. Peled said.”
It’s true that Barkat is not a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — or even of one of the parties that forms his coalition — and is not bound to follow its lead nor empowered to represent it. But neither is he an insignificant or powerless functionary who deserves to be ignored or mocked. Moreover, his position opposing both Jerusalem’s partition and a Jewish building freeze (while Arab building continues at a higher rate and without protest from anyone) happens to be identical to that of Netanyahu.
It’s easy to understand the embassy’s desire to downplay any differences between Israel and the administration during such a tense time. Moreover, if Netanyahu has actually caved in to Obama and promised to put in place some sort of unannounced freeze in Jerusalem, he’s got to be unhappy about Barkat either opposing such a change or making it clear that development in the city will continue regardless of what Obama wants.
But people who, like Peled, are tasked with the difficult job of selling Israel’s position on its capital to both the administration and to the American public, should be wary of making it appear as though they are throwing Barkat under the proverbial bus. Disavowing a respected mayor who is also an articulate advocate for the same position as the Netanyahu government on Jerusalem may make it a little easier to deal with the White House this week but in the long run it can have a deleterious effect on Israel’s efforts to defend its capital in Washington and at home.