Jerusalem's Mayoral Race Reflects the City's Troubled Times

(By Muhammed Muheisen -- Associated Press)
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By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 10, 2008

JERUSALEM -- When Jerusalemites go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new mayor, they will choose among a man on trial in France for arms trafficking and money laundering, a self-made millionaire who wants to build thousands of Jewish homes in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who won't put his picture on his campaign posters.

Jerusalem is home to sites holy to three major religions, and its future is one of the most contested issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. But the city is also one of the poorest in Israel. About half of Jerusalem's residents are Palestinians or ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom are unemployed and pay little or no taxes.

"Jerusalem is in a pivotal place right now," said Anat Hoffman, who recently resigned after 14 years on Jerusalem's city council. "Economically and culturally it's sinking, and it's become a place that Israelis from outside the city don't even visit."

Many Israelis say they feel increasingly alienated from the city they claim as their capital, saying it is too poor, too crowded and too religious. Jerusalemites say they want a mayor who will deal with the city's growing problems and attract more Israelis and tourists.

Each of the three candidates running for mayor says he will revitalize the city. Polls show a close race between two of them -- high-tech millionaire Nir Barkat and ultra-Orthodox candidate Rabbi Meir Porush.

Barkat, 49, narrowly lost a campaign for mayor five years ago and now serves on the city council. He has thousands of young, enthusiastic volunteers who hand out leaflets and canvass door-to-door.

"The young people are leaving Jerusalem," his campaign literature warns. "This is a real danger to Jerusalem's future and causes a decline in the general standard of living in the city."

At a recent campaign stop at a community center, Barkat laid out his plan to build thousands of new apartments for Jewish young people in East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed. Such settlements would be likely to anger Israeli critics as well as Western governments, which have not recognized Israel's annexation and consider continued Israeli settlement of occupied land an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

"This land belongs to the municipality and has already been set aside for building," Barkat told a crowd of about 150.

Barkat also wants to invest heavily in tourism infrastructure and bring 10 million visitors a year to Jerusalem. He has said he would impose fines on the foreign owners of luxury apartments in Jerusalem that are usually empty except for a few weeks during the summer and Jewish holidays such as Passover. He has suggested that the owners, most of them from the United States and France, rent their apartments to students, a proposal those owners are unlikely to welcome.

"Too often, politics in Israel is focused on the conflict, and we don't do enough to focus on who we are and the institutions and infrastructure we need to work here," said Sarah Kass, an activist for Barkat who moved to Israel from the United States two years ago.

Barkat's chief rival is Porush, 54, of the Agudat Israel party. An ultra-Orthodox Jew, Porush is a former deputy housing minister in the government, responsible for building thousands of homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He has promised to bring 100,000 young people to Jerusalem and offer affordable housing, but says little about how he will accomplish these goals.

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