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AP Interview: Mayor says Jerusalem can't be split

Wednesday - 9/4/2013, 4:34am  ET

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is seen during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. Barkat said any partition of the city as part of a future peace agreement will not work, insisting only a united city could function and thrive. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Jerusalem's mayor presides over perhaps the most complicated city in the world: deeply divided between Arab and Jew, religious and secular, rich and poor, and claimed as a capital by both Israelis and Palestinians.

But Nir Barkat, a successful former high-tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, told The Associated Press that Jerusalem is thriving like never before and in a re-election pledge insists the key to success is keeping its various fragments united.

With peace negotiators discussing the potential future partition of Jerusalem, Barkat emphatically says the city can't be split and urges negotiators meeting in Jerusalem Tuesday to take any such talk off the table.

"It will never function, it will never work. It is a bad deal," he said during an interview in his office at City Hall. "Doing a bad deal is worse than no deal."

Jerusalem is Israel's largest city and its 800,000 residents are split almost evenly among secular and modern Orthodox residents, Muslim Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Arab population lives almost entirely in east Jerusalem, the sector captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

Elected in 2008, in a victory seen as a backlash against ultra-Orthodox control of the city, Barkat claims to have stopped the exodus of tens of thousands of secular Jerusalemites, invigorated cultural life in the city and improved quality of life for the city's Arabs. But it remains one of the poorest cities in Israel.

Barkat, who is seeking a second five-year term in October, laid out his goal of maintaining Jerusalem as "the center of the world" -- a city that is open and accessible to all.

Drawing on the city's ancient history, Barkat said Jerusalem has always been at its finest when it allowed all those who entered its gates to feel equality and a sense of belonging. He said Jerusalem had to go "back to its roots" and rediscover what made it so special.

"Jerusalem of 3,000 years ago was not divided into tribes. All people that came to worship ... at the Temple felt that Jerusalem belonged to them as much as it belongs to everyone else and that feeling created a very special atmosphere of belonging," he said. "There is only one way this city can function -- it is a united city that all residents and visitors are treated honestly and equally. It is the only model."

Before turning to politics, Barkat was the first chairman of Checkpoint Software, a leading maker of computer security technology, and an Israeli business magazine recently ranked him as the country's richest politician with an estimated net worth of roughly $125 million. Barkat earns a symbolic salary of one shekel a year and drives his own car to work.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area in a move that has not been recognized internationally. The fate of Jerusalem remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While past peace talks have discussed partition options, Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says that is out of the question.

The Israeli government is responsible for peace talks with the Palestinians, and Jerusalem's mayor has no official say in the city's political future. But as chief executive he can affect the delicate balance between Arab and Jew, especially in regards to daily life issues like building permits, construction, education and public services.

Barkat, 53, said his administration has treated the city's Arab residents "honestly and equally" by building roads and classrooms, increasing budgets and investments in their neighborhoods and expediting building permits.

Critics, including human rights groups, say public services in Arab neighborhoods continue to lag far behind Jewish areas.

In a report coinciding with the opening of the school year this week, two Israeli human rights groups accused the city of discrimination and neglect toward the schools in east Jerusalem. It cited a dire shortage of classrooms, a double-digit dropout rate and disparities in key resources between Jewish and Arab schools. Altogether, some 36 percent of east Jerusalem Arabs fail to complete 12 years of schooling, the report said.

"Deep disparities in the educational system are not accidental but rather the product of policymaking that results in a lack of funding, resources and efforts to ameliorate the current situation," said the report, issued by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Ir Amim, a nonprofit group that promotes equality between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem.

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