Here’s how much Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat cares about his beloved city: Last month, the mayor, a former Israel Defense Forces paratrooper, and his personal security guard sprang into action after a knife-wielding Palestinian terrorist stabbed a charedi Jew right across the street from City Hall. The two helped tackle and subdue the man before he could do any more damage.
The story of the mayor’s courageous act made headlines at home and around the world, with Barkat being hailed as a “hero.” Of course, that isn’t quite the image of Jerusalem that Barkat, who has been mayor since 2008, wants to project to the world.
Just as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was credited with using his business experience to breathe new life into decaying areas of the city during his 12 years at City Hall, Barkat, the former high-tech entrepreneur, is working from a similar playbook. He is attempting to transform Israel’s capital city into a world-class metropolis via big-budget projects, and to attract local and foreign investments into the city’s bustling commercial, cultural and tourist centers.
That kind of transformation comes with its share of challenges, as the above anecdote shows. In fact, Barkat, 55, takes great personal pride in the city’s low crime statistics and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. In an exclusive interview with Eyes on Jerusalem, the mayor said, “In order to sustain social and economic growth in Jerusalem, you need to supply security and safety. Thus, this is both a local and national issue for the government and State of Israel, which is being dealt with. Security and safety are also keys to sustained economic growth in the local business sector.
“Statistically speaking,” he continued, “Jerusalem is one of the safest cities in the world, where people can walk around freely at night without having to worry. Violent crime numbers in Jerusalem are a fraction of those found in major American cities like New York. We will be tough on the bad guys and increase the punishments to the point where it won’t be worthwhile for them to be violent. No one wants to see criminals wreck the image of the city and scare off tourism and investments.”
To be sure, Jerusalem has its share of problems. Religious-secular tensions remain high and the city’s light-rail system has been a flashpoint for Palestinian violence. But Barkat has generally received high marks for moving the city forward and attracting foreign tourists to the city.
In order to insure his vision of a prosperous and crime-free Jerusalem, Barkat has pursued ongoing consultations with two of America’s most prominent business and urban planning professionals: Harvard University economist Michael Porter and University of Toronto urban theorist Richard Florida. Barkat believes that their valuable insights, which have been injected into his long-range strategic plans for the city, are already reaping benefits.
“I am proud of the fact that Jerusalem is in the midst of an across-the-board renaissance that includes business, culture, tourism and lifestyle upgrades,” Barkat said. “All of the indicators show that the city is in the midst of a vibrant turnaround. A key indication that my concepts are working is that young people from all walks of life have returned to live, work and indulge in the city’s cultural activities. When you see the skyline dotted with construction cranes, it means that Jerusalem is also becoming a great place to invest in real estate.”
Barkat continued: “The keys to the economic development of the city are also based on the growth of high-tech and tourism clusters; they not only have a local impact but also on an international level, as business people and travelers are lured to invest in various ways — from buying products and spending time in hotels, to enjoying the cultural activities that the city has to offer. In fact, the number of startups in Jerusalem alone has increased ten-fold during the past four years.”
A key element in the city’s growing high-tech sector emanates from Intel, where hundreds of people are employed in the company’s cutting-edge design and development center.
Barkat also believes that Jerusalem’s most significant economic engine, foreign tourism, is poised for a rebound.
He added, “We will recover from the incoming tourism problems associated with last year’s war in Gaza, because we have so much to offer to the international community. When people see our various cultural festivals, the exciting Formula 1 race across the city and the 26,000 runners from all over the globe partaking in our annual marathon, well, that is something meaningful for foreign tourists. It makes them consider Jerusalem as a serious destination for their vacations.”
Barkat believes that if there is tranquility and economic stability, “there is no reason why Jerusalem could not attract at least 10 million tourists a year, which is double what we have now and would put us on the international map as one of the best places in the world to visit.”
As part of his efforts to lure more tourists and investors, the Jerusalem mayor is launching his $350 million Sha’ar Habira (Capital Gate) urban development project this month. The business and commercial zone, located at the entrance to the city, will feature an array of office towers, hotels, shopping and restaurant centers that will be buttressed by underground parking for over 1,000 vehicles. Upon completion in 2018, Sha’ar Habira is also expected to provide jobs to nearly 50,000 Jerusalemites.
Said Barkat: “Jerusalem is becoming an attractive place for both local business people and overseas investors. Thus, Sha’ar Habira will provide them with a unique opportunity to invest in this new vibrant commercial zone, which will spur the city’s economic growth and offer new opportunities and attractions for business people and tourists alike.”
Though Barkat has been mentioned as a possible minister in a future Likud government coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he reportedly maintains a cordial relationship, he has shown no signs of leaving City Hall anytime soon for national politics, or returning to the more lucrative high-tech industry.
“You can’t even compare the satisfaction and fun I’m having as the mayor of Jerusalem, as opposed to the high-tech industry,” he said. “In the high-tech industry you need to be creative and execute both the business and technological challenges in order to succeed. But I’ve fulfilled that part of my life … been there, done that. Being the mayor of Jerusalem provides me with a daily sense of purpose, because I am dealing with my city, my country. This is a complex mission that is more interesting and more challenging than anything I’ve ever done in the private business sector.”