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Mayor sees bright future for Jerusalem in Trump era

It’s been nearly 50 years since Israel captured eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. For the past eight years, Nir Barkat has been this city’s mayor.

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ANDREW TOBIN

Last Sunday evening, six months ahead of the “united Jerusalem” jubilee, Barkat received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where he gave the keynote speech.

A staunch advocate of Israeli control over all of Jerusalem, he thanked President-elect Donald Trump for his “commitment to strengthen our city by moving the US Embassy home, to Jerusalem, the united and eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel”.

Late last month, Barkat sat down with JTA in his Jerusalem office to discuss in more depth his vision for the city. Having made a fortune as a hi-tech entrepreneur, he easily slipped into industry jargon, speaking of the need to increase Jerusalem’s “market share” of the hearts of Diaspora Jews. He also said that all its residents were his “children”.

Barkat made clear that he sees Jerusalem as an integral part of Israel and should not be part of negotiations with the Palestinians, and expressed confidence that Trump – with whose Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, he is friendly – shares his vision.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: What does it mean for you to receive this honorary degree?

Barkat: For me, it’s recognition of the changes happening in the city of Jerusalem. The honorary degree is being received on behalf of the residents of Jerusalem. I feel very proud that indeed Jerusalem is going in the right direction, but there is lots of work still to do. Toward its jubilee next year, I think it sharpens the fact that we all need to do everything we can to improve the city year after year.

What are the positive changes you see in Jerusalem?

Jerusalem is going through fast economic growth, and a cultural renaissance. Practically in almost every parameter we look, this city is making progress relative to years before and relative to its peer group. I think Jerusalem is fulfilling a very important role in the world of how do you make so many different people work in one city, in one inclusive economy, with democratic values.

Jerusalem also faces problems. Palestinian terrorism surged here earlier this year, and it is still the poorest city in Israel. How do you deal with problems like that on the municipal level?

With respect to the round of violence we had, you have to understand that today Jerusalem is 10 times safer than New York. When you look at, for example, the murder rate for crime and terror together, your chances of getting killed in the streets of New York are 10 times higher than the city of Jerusalem. I settle for being one of the safest cities in the world, focusing on economic growth and making the city tick better, work better.

We have a lot of poor people, but this city is moving year after year as a better place to live. And the more we develop our economy and education system and infrastructure, that will naturally reflect on having a better future.

As the mayor of Jerusalem, why is it important for you to reach out to the Diaspora?

For thousands of years, every Pesach and every wedding and practically every major occasion, the longing for returning and building and connecting to Jerusalem is in our prayers and it’s in our hearts.

Everyone is a shareholder in the city of Jerusalem. It’s the capital of the Jewish people forever, and I think developing that relationship, increasing that market share of people’s hearts, is in the mutual benefit of the city and the Jewish people around the world. And my role as mayor is to expand that relationship and bonding.

Why must Israel retain control of all of Jerusalem when the Palestinians claim the eastern part of the city as their capital?

There’s a very famous phrase in the Bible that Jerusalem makes all peoples friends. Jerusalem had and has and will always have a special role of including people. G-d forbid, if you divide Jerusalem it will never function. It’s one economy. It’s one vision. It will never ever function as a divided city, as it did not function for 2 000 years.

Since the reunification of the city of Jerusalem, we’re working very hard to catch up with neglect and investments. There’s lots of work to do, but the philosophy is only one, and by the way, there’s no split city in the world that ever functioned. So Jerusalem is off the table, off the negotiation table, and our goal is to make it better for all residents of the city – Muslims, Christians and Jews. They’re all my children. I need and I do take care of all of them in order to improve quality of life for all.

Do you think President-elect Trump shares your vision of Jerusalem?

It seems that the vision and the understanding of the Trump administration is more aligned with the understanding of myself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The statements that have been made support that feeling that indeed it’s going to be different.

The prior administration had different thoughts as to the future of the city of Jerusalem and other elements, and hopefully that change will indeed be executed. I have good reasons to believe that’s going to be the case.

Would you like to see Trump move the US Embassy to Jerusalem as he promised?

Not only I, not only Israelis, I also think the majority of Americans would like to see the embassy moved. It’s a statement of understanding the role and the importance of Jerusalem for the Jewish people. It was disappointing that it did not happen so far, but it’s better late than never.

Do you expect to be freer to build your vision of a united Jerusalem with Trump in the White House?

With the prior administration, every once in a while, we heard the sort of statement like:  Freeze building in Jerusalem. So I asked the administration: Freeze what exactly? Freeze everything? Or G-d forbid, do you mean that I have to ask somebody if he’s Jewish or Muslim or Christian before I as mayor of Jerusalem give him a licence? It’s against the American Constitution.

When we plan Jerusalem and develop it, our master plan that we share with people shows and demonstrates that we indeed are honest and fair and enable all growth – of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the city of Jerusalem – on an equal basis. I believe and hope that the new administration understands that very, very well and will let us build Jerusalem for the benefit of all residents. (JTA)

 

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Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC

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Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).

According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.

“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.

She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.

“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.

“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.

“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”

One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.

The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”

Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.

“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.

“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”

In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”

Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.

“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”

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Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?

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Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.

The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.

Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.

Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.

Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.

But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.

There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.

The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.

In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.

As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.

Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.

Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.

Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.

Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.

Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.

In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.

But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.

To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.

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The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown

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Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.

This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.

Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.

There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.

The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.

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