JERUSALEM – What happens in Jerusalem rarely stays in Jerusalem. That is why anyone who cares about Israel and the Middle East should be alarmed by the composition of the city’s new municipal government.
Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, was re-elected in October with 51% of the vote. For many who supported him, he was the lesser of two evils: his rival was backed by two powerful politicians implicated in corruption scandals. Voters did not consider Barkat a success on the issues that most of them care about – housing costs, clean streets, or conflicts with the ultra-Orthodox; but at least he was someone they already knew. They expected no surprises.
They were wrong. In forming his new coalition, the first agreement that Barkat signed was with a new local party called “United Jerusalem.” Though headed by a veteran politician formerly of the National Religious Party, the second position on United Jerusalem’s candidate list was filled by Aryeh King, a far-right activist who ran for the Knesset (parliament) with a party called Strength to Israel. Nationally, Strength to Israel failed to win enough votes to enter the Knesset, and the courts banned some of its campaign material for being racist. Yet in Jerusalem, King and the local version of his party won two seats in the 30-seat city council.
King is not to be feared just for his words. He launched a series of legal proceedings to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrach neighborhood and elsewhere, and established a fund (backed by donations from wealthy, right-wing Americans) to buy land from Palestinians in order to give it to Israelis – sort of a racist Robin Hood in reverse. He also won the backing of a small group of extremist rabbis who declared that selling or renting apartments to non-Jews is forbidden and treasonous (one of the rabbis is under investigation for these and other statements).