On The Campaign Trail With Nir Barkat

Kafe Knesset’s Neri Zilber on the campaign trail with former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat:

Former Jerusalem mayor and now number nine on the Likud list Nir Barkat is, like all the other Knesset candidates, very busy these days: media interviews interspersed with town halls and official party events. Yet away from the public eye, countless small “living room” salons take place daily across the country, where the candidate can make his or her pitch directly to the voters. Barkat himself has a strong message, which last Thursday evening he conveyed to around 60 people in a Ramat Aviv penthouse apartment just north of Tel Aviv.

Over wine and appetizers, Barkat told the English-speaking and affluent crowd about his personal journey from the paratroopers, to hi-tech millionaire, to his two-term mayorship. He has now entered national politics, to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told him “my blessings and my condolences.” Barkat often comes across as a Bibi clone — private sector experience overseas, strong English, and ideologically hawkish on security but economically and socially liberal.

“I want to adopt global standards, open up competition…and decrease bureaucracy,” he told the living room group, and his solutions for much of Israel’s acute challenges are indeed economic and managerial. The path to developing the Galilee and Negev runs through “research and analytics, to make these regions more attractive”; ultra-Orthodox youth could be conscripted into the IDF through a smarter marketing campaign (“pull them, don’t push them”); there must never be a Palestinian state, but “they can have their civil life” under autonomy while “dramatically scal[ing] business clusters…and industrial zones” in the West Bank.

Like the rest of the Likud, Barkat was adamantly opposed to the idea of “land for peace” and dividing Jerusalem. As a former mayor of the holy city he rejected various proposals— some put forward by other Likud ministers —- of handing over even outlying Arab villages and refugee camps. “The city as the city has to stay whole. You can’t give one village, and then another, and then another….Let’s agree that that’s the city and manage.”

This being an election, Barkat also used the opportunity to blast Likud’s main rivals in Blue and White and tout Netanyahu’s accomplishments. “The two big differences in the campaign are, first, ideology: under the right-wing bloc,” as he called it, “Israel’s position has never been better — in international affairs, economics and security. The other bloc is not very coherent.” Second, Barkat went on, is “leadership. Benny Gantz lacks experience, he’s not ready [to be PM], and a bit of modesty wouldn’t hurt. The leader is a big part of it.”

Given those two more positive messages, Kafe Knesset asked Barkat, why did the Likud campaign seem to constantly take the opposite approach. “It’s in nobody’s interest to expand polarization, but campaigns take things to extremes,” he responded. “I prefer a discussion…focused on the positive. But sometimes in a campaign you have to go negative, because it works.”  

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