Nir Barkat is the mayor of Jerusalem, but it’s easier to visualize him as a no-nonsense CEO who has taken over an old company with a great brand name but badly in need of rejuvenation.
At 50, he is a self-made millionaire, dapper, slim, with close-cropped hair, who effortlessly reels off figures and percentages and who peppers his presentation with such Americanisms as “biggest bang for the buck,” “leverage high-quality education,” “create a bullish climate” and “turn the city around.”
Newsweek.com reports that “Barkat has tried to cast himself as a kind of Israeli Bruce Wayne — a young, hip millionaire dedicated to saving his city. He even dresses a bit like Batman, favoring dark suits, dark shirts and blue ties.”
Barkat was elected in November 2008, presenting himself as a nonideological problem solver, but he has not been getting very good press lately.
His insistence on expanding Jewish housing in every part of Jerusalem, including disputed land in the predominantly Arab eastern part of the city, has been met with almost unanimous international condemnation.
As a result, Barkat has recently locked horns with the Obama administration, United Nations and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The mayor, who made his fortune developing and marketing antivirus software, met on May 2 in Beverly Hills with some 30 community leaders at a private home to answer his critics and lay out his vision for the future of his native city.
Jerusalem now has a population of 800,000, about two-thirds Jewish and one-third Arab, and, within 20 years, Barkat expects the city to have 1 million inhabitants.
However, to reach this projection and retain a Jewish majority, Jerusalem must reverse the trend of the last two decades, in which the best and brightest Jewish minds have moved to Tel Aviv, for lack of job opportunities in the capital city and friction between the ultra-Orthodox and secular (or, as Barkat prefers, “Zionist”) segments of the Jewish population.
Part of Barkat’s plan to reverse the trend is to raise his city’s artistic and cultural profile and boost international tourism, each aspect strengthening the other.
“New York now attracts 45 million tourists a year, but Jerusalem only 2 million,” he said. “My goal is to raise the figure for my city to 10 million visitors a year.”
Barkat pledged to provide an equal amount of housing for both Jews and Arabs, in proportion to their populations, but he firmly opposes any formal or de facto division of the city.
“Dividing a city has not worked anywhere else, so why should we go there?” he asked.
As a concrete example of what is being done to transform Jerusalem, Barkat cited the New Spirit (Ruach Hadashah in Hebrew) project and brought along its CEO, 29-year-old Elisheva Mazya.
New Spirit was founded in 2003 by a group of college students and business people to provide opportunities and incentives for university graduates to stay, work and shape the new Jerusalem, she said.
Included in the plan are projects to establish urban communities especially for young professionals, transform Jerusalem into an artistic center and organize an extensive internship program by and for business and government.