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Mayor Moshe Lion gets candid on the future ahead of Jerusalem Day

CM 05/05/2021

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Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, until a few years ago a resident of Givatayim, has managed within half his tenure to pleasantly surprise many of those who didn’t vote for him. He promised that he would clean the city and he did; that he would promote the mass transportation master plan, which he is doing, with an emphasis on the light rail; and this right-wing religious mayor is even succeeding in establishing a good relationship with the Arab residents. 
The NIS 2.5 billion budget approved by the national government for infrastructure in the city’s east side was decided upon before his watch, but he has managed to include in it formal and informal education projects with a human touch that earned him much respect – as was evident, for example, when he visited an Arab child injured during police activities in Isawiya. The apex, perhaps, was the large-scale coronavirus vaccination operation and the inclusion of Arab residents in support and benevolent programs, with food baskets and more.
The pace of construction that is changing the capital’s skyline with soaring towers everywhere continues and despite his efforts, Lion has yet to succeed in lowering the high cost of housing in the nation’s capital city. In addition, despite several declarations on the importance of green spaces, the controversial project to build more than 5,000 housing units on Reches Lavan (White Ridge) moves ahead. Lion won the election by 3,000 votes over Ofer Berkovitch, but he has no list at the council and hence is heavily dependent upon his haredi partners in the coalition. 
Lion met with the Magazine to answer questions on the occasion of the 54th Jerusalem Day. 
We are now at the halfway point of your term in office – two-and-a-half years at the helm of this city. During the past year, Jerusalem, like the country, has gone through coronavirus, repeated elections and there is still no national government on the horizon. Amid all this, where does Jerusalem stand? How do you see the capital’s economy emerging from this chaos?
Even before I go into detail, I must tell you that clearly this city is reaching a turning point. Allow me to describe each change and move. First of all, two-and-a-half years ago, 95% of existing office space was occupied. Right now, a million square meters of additional office space are being built in Jerusalem. It’s a dramatic change. Just today we signed a permit to build yet another complex. Consequently, we will soon be able to offer all of the office space that is so necessary to boost the city’s economy.
Who will work in these offices? Are you sure that firms will come?
Oh, yes. First of all, those for whom we are building housing here will come. We are currently building thousands of homes; tens of thousands more [housing units] are already planned and ready to begin construction. The city will soon undergo a significant transformation. It’s both new construction and urban renewal, which is not an easy task, but we are overcoming the problems. Take for example the Pat neighborhood – we are currently in the most advanced stages of pinui binui (evacuation and construction) there and the same goes for Gilo, and for East Talpiot.
And they will all be towers, right? So we’re going to have towers everywhere in Jerusalem?
Yes, and I am totally at peace with it. Because that is what we need here. There is no other option. The planning commission has approved towers along the light rail lines, and this is what we are doing. 

But it changes the character of Jerusalem and hasn’t yet lowered the cost of any apartment here. 
So what do you prefer? Take a look at the Katamonim neighborhood today – if we don’t carry out an extensive pinui binui project there and construct new modern buildings, it will increasingly become poverty-stricken and slum-like. Is that what Jerusalem needs?
Who will reside in the new housing you plan? Do you expect newcomers or locals to move there?
Jerusalemites, firstly, but also strong young families who will come from all over the country. They are coming already.
Why would they come here? After all, and despite all your efforts, housing is still unaffordable here.
They come because people seek quality of life – and above all, the highest level and quality of education for their children. This is what Jerusalem offers – the best education available. Plus, we are on the verge of becoming the leading city in the country in terms of hi-tech employment. This is why we need the new office space we are building now. We’re heading toward a million square meters, and there will be more. 
Additionally, Jerusalem has the best and will soon have the largest network of light rail. People will come for all these things. Jerusalemites will not need to rely on private cars for local travel anymore when the project is completed. 
But we all know that people will always prefer their private cars – will you educate them?
It will take time, but it will come sooner than you think. Jerusalemites will soon understand that they don’t need private cars anymore inside the city. 
That’s only a part of the picture; let’s not forget the east side is still poor and underdeveloped, plus you have the haredi sector. It’s not easy for some of those who haven’t yet lived here to adapt to this special mosaic of communities. What will attract the average Israeli from anywhere in the country to move into Jerusalem?
First of all, because it is the most stunning city. This is the most pluralistic city in the country. People understand that – slowly perhaps, but surely. Here’s a fact: any apartment we build here is immediately snapped up despite the high prices. I hope that with all the building we are doing, the supply will ultimately slow prices down. 
Who is buying these costly apartments? Are you sure it’s young and strong families from across the country and not once again foreigners?
Yes, I checked personally with the contractors. I asked them – they know for sure who their clients are. Well, the majority are not – yet – Jerusalemites. 
And they don’t buy these houses as an investment, they really plan to move in here?
Yes, absolutely. And as a result we are building more schools, more daycare centers for toddlers, more kindergartens. The changes on the ground mean that we have to build a lot. You don’t like towers, but what other solution do we have? Do we want some of the neighborhoods in Jerusalem to become filled with homeless? There is no other option. 
But there is more. I want to save as many green spaces as possible. I don’t want to build on these green spaces – so what other option do we have?
So what about Reches Lavan? It’s a green space (near the Jerusalem Hills, with its natural springs and spring-fed pools) but with a large construction plan on it.
We’ll see. We’ll wait and see. 
So it’s not a final decision yet?
Let’s wait. That’s all I can say for now. 
Do you have a message for the residents of German Colony opposed to the light rail on Emek Refaim Street?
Please, it’s too late… what can be changed? This issue is closed. 
But residents there still struggle?
It’s finished. 
What awaits those who will move from the country’s Center upon arriving here? They will find unaffordable housing, and on weekends, little to nothing open. Everything is closed here on Shabbat. 
Residents have a large variety of leisure options. We build parks everywhere; there are activities for the families at the First Station without transgressing Shabbat. It’s not true that everything is closed. We are developing parks in almost every neighborhood. 
OK, but after a park and something at the First Station – what else? Your partners at the city council are haredim, they won’t let you keep things open. So once people go to a park and on an Old City stroll, they are stuck on Shabbat. Is that what you propose to Israelis as an incentive to move to Jerusalem?
There are laws; we have a status quo. Leisure places that are not financed by the municipality can open, but let me tell you – that’s the advantage of Jerusalem, that it is different. This atmosphere of sanctity is an asset; people will learn to appreciate it.
Not everybody, you know. Many among the young generation are moving out of the city, mostly because of that.
Right, but I hope the market will enable more open options. This is not something I can change as the mayor, and we promote more than enough activities during weekdays. 
From your position as mayor, you can convey a distinct message, encourage private initiatives without financing them. But obviously you can’t because you are tied to a haredi majority in your coalition. So what’s left for people who want to enjoy something during Shabbat – should they go to the Old City? Or to Beit Safafa? 
You know that it’s already happening, I don’t have to be involved at all. Facts on the ground, look at all the area around Sultan Suleiman, Salah E-Din… it’s already happening.
But from time to time there is some tension or worse.
True, we had that recently, and yet after a short while, everything returned to normal. 
Apropos the east side – there is no question that the decision of police to place barricades at Damascus Gate was a mistake. Why weren’t you more involved to prevent it? After all, this act was so unlike your efforts toward calming the atmosphere on the Arab side. 
Excuse me? What was I doing? I was involved as soon I was informed to stop this. I was not informed before; these are the police priorities, but as soon as I found out, I asked, I checked and facts: the barricades were removed. But we have to understand one thing: The police didn’t install the barriers to disrupt the festive atmosphere, but only to protect the public. When a large number of people are expected, the police use barriers for safety, like they do at the Kotel. So what? 
The police often act with excessive force. Like at Balfour – and your voice is not heard, although you always say that this is not your way.
I work behind the scenes, that’s where I can influence. But I understand the police, they want to prevent loss of order and dangerous situations. There are two sides to the issue.
Let’s get back to the city and its future. Following the coronavirus crisis, many businesses based on tourism, especially in the Old City, have closed and won’t reopen. Tourists are not expected in high numbers again at least until 2022. This is an economic threat to Jerusalem. Do you have plans to address this? 
My plan is to bring as many young people as possible to join the employment market, and hence, change the nature of the city’s economy from inside. Poverty will decline when more people work and earn and spend money. It won’t be fully achieved in one or two years, but has been already launched. 
Additionally, tourism is on the verge of coming back. Read my lips: tourists – mostly Jewish tourists – will already be here by this summer, and certainly for the Tishrei holidays. Tourism will be the first thing to recover, especially in Jerusalem, and it is coming back soon. 
Salaries are lower in Jerusalem than in the Center. How do you plan to fight poverty when a Jerusalemite earns less than a resident of Tel Aviv?
That is what this million square meters of office space will do – no more low salaries of government employees here, but business, hi-tech… and tourism, of course. We will see high salaries, sooner than later. We will make the best use of our twin assets: first Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and second, the Investment Encouragement Act – which means that any hi-tech firm that moves to Jerusalem will pay half of the taxes it would have to pay in Tel Aviv. 
It’s more than just the sanitation, the atmosphere and other nice things around. It’s a huge and fundamental change that will make this city the best place in the country to live and work. The quality of life in Jerusalem will very soon be at record height.
Regarding the haredi sector, do you see any hints of understanding that things should change there? That they should begin to think in terms of partners and take responsibility and not focus only on their needs?
Jerusalem is the reflection of Israel. Whatever happens here, will happen later in the rest of the country. As mayor, I have proven that agreements and understandings between the haredim and the rest of the population are achievable. Each side has to feel it is obtaining what it needs and has the right to, but at the same time, everyone must be tolerant to the needs and desires of the others. We have three different sectors here that at the end of the day, must coexist. This is the only city in Israel where a haredi, an Arab and a secular travel together on the light rail and none of them look at the other as if he is an alien. 
We saw it during the vaccination period. We all went together to help and vaccinate everyone regardless of who he or she is. We said clearly, “You’re a Jerusalemite? So you’re going to be vaccinated; we don’t care who you are.” And this is how we reached 80% vaccination in the city – an unprecedented achievement.
Regarding Arab residents, let me ask you what your position is regarding their status. I know it is not yours to decide, but shouldn’t they obtain Israeli citizenship and put an end to their uncertain status? 
I am not opposed. 
But are you doing something concrete on this matter? 
The residents of east Jerusalem are an integral part of Jerusalem and they should obtain the rights that the residents of the west side have. 
OK, let’s take a look at local politics. In two-and-a-half years you will probably run again for mayor. Are you planning to take steps so this time you will have a list at city council and not remain without any base of your own – some would add totally dependent on your haredi partners?
I will have a list of my own and it will be a long list, trust me. But otherwise, I’m not dealing with that right now; I don’t have the time for that now. I’m presently busy with all these plans on the larger scale for the city. When the time comes, I will run at the head of a list. The Jerusalemites that I am serving now will see and judge according to our accomplishments. 
But people are concerned that you may end up, again, with no support of your own at the council and that you will, again, be dependent on your partners in the coalition. Two-and-a-half years is not such a long period in Israeli politics. 
It’s too early. Truly, I am not busy with this now. Every morning when I wake up, I pinch myself, reminding myself that I am the mayor of Jerusalem, and start a new day of work for Jerusalem and its residents. Politics is not on my agenda now. 
Don’t you think that you could bring a message of partnership for this city through a joint list that would include representatives from different sectors? Many feel you should be investing time in building such a list.
I’m not interested in that right now. The only crucial issue is who the mayor of Jerusalem is, not who is behind him. The fact is that even though I don’t presently have a list, I manage to get things done pretty well. I’m not into politics; I am totally focused on doing good for the city. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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