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Jerusalem, according to Ofer Berkovitch

CM 05/08/2021 1

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It’s been two-and-a-half years since the last mayoral election in Jerusalem, a time rife with tension and upheavals. For a while, it seemed the citizens of Jerusalem had decided to elect Ofer Berkovitch, a young traditional Jerusalemite who was educated, in touch with the people, patriotic and also cared about the city’s two large minority communities, which make up two-thirds of its population: the haredi and Arab sectors. 
Berkovitch, 38, accomplished the near impossible when he arrived at the finish line of a very tight campaign that had been full of emotion and began with nine mayoral candidates – a first for Jerusalem. A young native-born Jerusalemite, he came up against Moshe Lion from Givatayim, who had lots of experience and political connections, and had always dreamed of being mayor of Jerusalem. 
Fewer than 3,000 votes were all Berkovitch lacked to clinch the election. Despite his surprising support among young haredi residents from both the Lithuanian haredi and hassidic camps, as well as from fellow Hitorerut party members, in the end, he was forced to concede defeat to Lion. 

Since then, Berkovitch has found himself head of the opposition in the Jerusalem Municipality, and leader of city council’s largest faction. He had hoped to continue his work from within the coalition, but negotiations broke down, and now, he says, the mayor has refused to acknowledge him and has exiled him to the opposition. 
Lion, however, has stated many times that his door is open to recommendations from the opposition, and that Berkovitch’s refusal to acknowledge he lost the election is what prevented Hitorerut from joining the coalition. 
Berkovitch might be frustrated, but that doesn’t mean he has given up. After making a short, but unsuccessful, debut on the national political scene, he is currently planning his comeback in the next municipal election. “From the start, even when I was running on Gideon Sa’ar’s Knesset list, I made it known that if I were elected, my focus would be on Jerusalem, and that I would run for mayor again in the next municipal election,” Berkovitch explained.
He is happy to field questions, such as: How do you plan to preserve the spirit of the Hitorerut party while it sits in the opposition? How is the party dealing with the abandonment of some members? What’s it like to watch as someone else leads Jerusalem in a direction that is different from what you had planned? What is your opinion about Lion’s achievements, namely cleaning up the city and bringing about a construction boom?
“Moshe Lion is a great CEO, and also a good sanitation department director, but in my opinion, he is not performing as a mayor should,” asserts Berkovitch. “He has no serious long-term strategic plan for Jerusalem, which is the most complex city in Israel – and perhaps in the entire world.” 
Berkovitch laid out five areas in which, he argues, Lion failed repeatedly to effectuate changes in Jerusalem: “First – economic development; second – cultural events and nightlife; third – unequal law enforcement in different parts of the city, especially vis-à-vis COVID-19 regulations; fourth – characterization of neighborhoods; and fifth – lack of understanding of Jerusalem’s unique charm, which has led to harming our natural surroundings and quality of life.”
When asked what he thinks is the most devastating problem the city is facing since the new mayor took office, Berkovitch doesn’t hesitate, and answers: “Definitely negative migration. This year, the number of people leaving Jerusalem – 20,000 – surpassed all previous years, and this is only Lion’s second year in office. Moreover, he has no long-term strategic plan in place that would help the city deal with its economic challenges.”
According to Berkovitch, “the municipality should be enlarging industrial areas, especially in haredi and Arab neighborhoods, which would remove the barriers residents of these areas often face when looking for employment opportunities. The Wadi Joz Project is a perfect example of what the city should be doing to promote economic expansion in Arab neighborhoods, so why aren’t any other similar projects being planned?
“The economic status of the city has deteriorated significantly,” Berkovitch continues. “Between 2013 and 2018, Jerusalem saw greater economic growth in the hi-tech sector [compared to] the national average. This was achieved by creating accelerators and offering mentoring and monetary incentives, which obviously worked, since the number of tech companies rose from 215 to 500. Hitorerut was responsible to a large extent for this dramatic breakthrough. At first, mayor Nir Barkat was hesitant, and so we approached the Jerusalem Development Authority and were successful in achieving this incredible feat. Now, unfortunately, growth has been stymied.”
According to Berkovitch, Jerusalem’s economy has suffered greatly, despite the fact that the municipality has been authorized by the Knesset to offer improved conditions to anyone who is willing to relocate their factories and businesses to the capital. “But how many companies were opened in Jerusalem in the last three years? None!”
He claims that the best way to put an end to the negative migration is by providing better jobs. “We’ve been engaging in an ongoing battle to have more government offices brought to Jerusalem. What has Lion accomplished on this subject? Nothing. We’ve been in touch with a number of governmental offices, and we recently submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on this issue. We’re talking about a possible 5,000 jobs, with an average monthly salary of NIS 17,000, which is well above the current average salary in Jerusalem. And that’s before we start counting all the other jobs that will be created following the opening of these offices. 
“We’re also looking into creating more R&D and cybertech jobs. Why hasn’t anything been done in these areas?”
BERKOVITCH ALSO claims that he would be much more successful in jumpstarting the city’s cultural events, nightlife and tourism sector had he been elected mayor of Jerusalem. “It’s very nice that they built sidewalks, but that’s just not enough. Why hasn’t the municipality canceled fees for businesses that didn’t survive the lockdowns and lack of tourism, since there is a budget of NIS 11 billion that can cover this. Why haven’t property and municipal taxes been lowered for independent contractors, who’ve always been charged higher rates than salaried workers? Why not give them a break during such a difficult year? I don’t understand any of this.
“And why aren’t there any nightlife options geared toward Jerusalemites over the age of 28? In Talpiot, everything has closed down, and the Justice Night Club also closed. The First Station has lost its vitality and the city center and Mahaneh Yehuda are suffering terribly. We need to do something about this.”
Berkovitch is also indignant that Lion canceled the only plan Barkat implemented aimed at keeping young secular Jerusalemites in the city. “Why would young secular people move to Kiryat Hayovel now? What happened to the Warburg site? There were plans to open a Yellow Submarine [music venue] and secular yeshiva in that area – it was supposed to be a neighborhood where people who couldn’t afford to pay such high rents in places like Nahlaot could go. 
“This change would have a great impact on the city’s character. Our goal is to improve the lives of all communities here – including the haredi population – but not at the expense of the rest of the city’s residents. For example, in Gilo, a few rooms inside the community center that are supposed to be used for activities open to all residents were turned into haredi kindergartens. And in Ramot, a local swimming pool was forced to close on Shabbat – these kinds of changes didn’t even take place when [haredi] Uri Lupolianski was mayor, but they are now when Lion is. He hasn’t even succeeded in maintaining a status quo, which completely goes against promises he made before he was elected.”
With respect to haredi educational issues, Berkovitch believes they should be offered appropriate solutions, but not in secular neighborhoods. “I think that new educational institutions for haredi children should be built in Givat Hamatos and Atarot.”
Although the municipal election took place over two years ago, Lion and Berkovitch are still not working in coordination with each other. “Lion’s decision not to include the city’s largest Zionist party in the coalition is reprehensible,” Berkovitch asserts angrily. “Twice Nir Barkat defeated the haredi parties, and both times he included them in his coalition. The decision to prevent the seven Hitorerut members from working for the betterment of the city was unjustified. At least Lion admits that the bad blood between us is the reason he’s refused to let us join the coalition. How can he deny the hundreds of thousands of Jerusalemites who voted for me [to receive] representation? I can’t believe he’s willing to completely disregard them.”
On the topic of nature preservation, Berkovitch is extremely concerned about building plans that don’t take wildlife into consideration. He maintains that “one of the greatest advantages we have here in Jerusalem is our natural surroundings. We have invested so much time and effort into creating programs that take indigenous flora and fauna into consideration, such as Park Hamesila and Gazelle Valley.”
Berkovitch is opposed to the construction of high-rise buildings in central neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and proposes that necessary tall structures be instead placed in outlying areas. “All urban construction should take its surroundings into consideration. For example, why is the new police station slated to be built on one of the most beautiful urban nature parks in the entire city? Why was an order to chop down 700 trees in Sacher Park approved? 
“These terrible decisions demonstrate that the current administration has completely misunderstood Jerusalem’s needs.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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