A Profile of Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's Mayor

Correction (published Sept. 24, 2009): This story originally reported that Nir Barkat was a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. Barkat has never belonged. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

Washington and Jerusalem look closer today to a deal on freezing Israel's West Bank settlement construction than they've been in years. Last week, George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy, suggested that an agreement was imminent, and most observers expect at least a nine-month hiatus to start soon. Even the Israeli government's recent decision to approve 455 new housing units may be a sign that it knows a deal is coming and wants to get a few more buildings in before the deadline. (Article continued below...)

Yet as the two sides work out the final details on the West Bank, they're looking further apart then ever on one key location: East Jerusalem. That's because Israel views the area as an integral part of the country where it can build at will, while the United States—and most other countries—sees it as occupied territory like the rest of the West Bank, and thus the subject of negotiations on a future Palestinian state.

In the middle of the controversy stands Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's mayor since November 2008. Barkat's responsibilities include approving new construction permits anywhere in Jerusalem. That puts him in a unique position to make Mitchell's life less difficult—or much more so. It's the latter course that's looking more and more likely. The mayor—a 49-year-old secular entrepreneur who made a fortune developing antivirus software—is not a populist zealot. He spent part of his childhood on college campuses in Pasadena, Calif., and Ithaca, N.Y., where his father was a physics professor, and he insists that he's well-tuned to Washington's worries. His stance on settlement building in the ancient Israeli capital is uncompromising. "Jerusalem is totally out of these negotiations," the mayor said in an interview last week.

To Barkat, that's just as it should be. The mayor says that Jews ought to be able to build in all parts of the city, regardless of what the international community thinks. He opposes the Clinton parameters—the former U.S. president's proposal to divide Jerusalem's Jewish and Arab neighborhoods between Israel and a future Palestinian state—and has supported controversial demolitions of Arab housing and Jewish building projects in East Jerusalem that have been condemned by U.S. officials. As far as Barkat is concerned, a Palestinian state is a nonstarter, at least in the short term, and he insists that Jewish building will proceed for as long as he's in charge. "We will not freeze," he said last week.

Such rhetoric has made Barkat, who won election with a 53 percent majority, an increasingly controversial figure at home as well as abroad and among Jews as well as Arabs. Israel's leftists seem slightly confused by the mayor. Like them, he's secular—unusual for a leader of this increasingly devout city. That initially won Barkat some fans among Israel's old elite, who feel they're losing the capital to the ultra-Orthodox. Yet many leftists now believe their trust was misplaced. There are no hard figures to indicate that construction in East Jerusalem has actually increased during his term, but peaceniks believe it's only a matter of time. "He turned out to be a real danger to the stability of Jerusalem," says Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, a left-wing advocacy group. Danny Seidemann, an Israeli human-rights advocate and expert on Jerusalem, complains that Barkat "is a strategic threat to the vital interests of the United States … He's doing the bidding of the most extreme settler organizations."

The mayor's uncompromising stance seems a product, in part, of his history. Barkat's grandparents immigrated to Israel in the 1930s and '40s from Poland and Russia. Relatives who remained were "totally wiped out," he recalls: "slaughtered, murdered, in the middle of Europe, less than 100 years ago." Such memories help explain his opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. "The Holocaust will never happen again to us here in Israel," he says. "I know why we must not negotiate [away] our security."

Barkat spent his 20s trying to break into the business world. During the late 1980s he worked for his mother-in-law selling ceramic dolls in Jerusalem's Old City while taking business classes. Then Barkat and a small clique of friends made a major breakthrough, coming up with one of the world's first-ever antivirus programs. Soon their garage operation was striking deals with large American software corporations like Symantec and Norton. Barkat next parlayed a smart investment in Israel's hugely profitable Check Point Software into a job as chairman for four years, then built a fortune as a venture capitalist, investing in other Israeli and international businesses.

As mayor, 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 little like Batman, favoring dark suits, dark shirts, and blue ties.) Several days a week, the mayor jogs from his home to his office, sometimes carrying a small, handheld camera that he uses to photograph things that annoy him: litter on a street corner, say, or a parking infraction. One role model is former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, from whom Barkat says he learned that "details matter." Barkat says that the New Yorker's "very, very aggressive" approach to crimefighting also appeals to him.

But Jerusalem is not New York. The kind of bully tactics Giuliani used to tame Manhattan have the potential to start a regionwide conflagration in a place like Jerusalem, which is holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Old City and the Temple Mount, in particular, teeter constantly on the precipice of violence; it was there, in September 2000, that the second intifada erupted after Ariel Sharon, soon to become Israel's prime minister, visited with his entourage. Barkat wants to draw more tourists to Jerusalem through various schemes, including developing the land around the ancient City of David, just south of the Old City, into a kind of biblical theme park. Yet in this place where every inch of land is fought over, even that plan is controversial: Barkat's critics on the left insist it is a thinly disguised effort to Judaize the area. The mayor says that the project will just be good business. Yet he hints at a deeper motivation when he admits that he's worried that the city's Arab population is growing faster than its Jewish one. "I have to balance Jerusalem and keep it Jewish, as the Jewish capital of the world," he says. With the Obama administration pushing for a comprehensive peace and Mitchell scrambling to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table this fall, that's not the kind of language that the Middle East envoy—or anyone in the White House—wants to hear.