Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (left) speaks with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg at CityLab 2014 in Los Angeles. Melanie Leigh Wilbur

A transit line that was hailed as the dream of a unified city is now on the brink, following waves of domestic unrest over the summer.

"When it rains, it rains on everyone."

That was the answer from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to one of a number of thorny questions put to him today in Los Angeles. Questions on why he thinks an independent Palestine will never call East Jerusalem its capital. On why Arabs decline to participate in Jerusalem's municipal government. On how city zoning and planning works when the ramifications are global, religious, and historic.

These are questions that most cities simply never face. Barkat seemed to understand that. "We have all our challenges," he said, lumping himself in among the mayors who have to deal with collecting the garbage and curbing traffic congestion. But then: "I am the mayor of all residents of the city of Jersusalem, regardless of their religion. They are all my children."

And also: "With all the turmoil in the Middle East, you have an island of sanity called Israel."

Speaking with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg as part of "CityLab 2014: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges," Barkat answered questions about his unique station among the pantheon of mayors. He fielded just one question that might've been meant for any other city leader: Can transit unite the city? That's one goal of many public transit systems, after all. Yet even on this topic, Jerusalem stands alone.

(Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Half a world away, protesters in East Jerusalem threw rocks at CityPass light-rail trains on Sunday in two incidents. Dozens of protesters have hurled hundreds of rocks at CityPass trains, tracks, and stations over the course of the summer—as well as paint and even incendiary devices—causing delays and damage. Protests erupted this summer following the abduction and murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir; two CityPass stations were destroyed by rioters in July.  

"Two and a half months after the start of civil unrest in East Jerusalem, the light rail line that crosses the city’s neighborhoods and ethnic communities has become its soft underbelly," wrote one Haaretz reporter earlier this month. Compare that to the newspaper's conventional wisdom two years ago, just short of a year after the system got its start: "It arrived a bit late and a bit over budget, but the Jerusalem Light Rail is a big, sleek step in addressing the holy city's hellish traffic."

What's happening now, Barkat told Goldberg, isn't sustainable. Vandalism has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs—and millions counting lost revenue. Yet the deaths compromising peace continue to mount. Israeli special forces recently killed two Palestinian men who were suspects in the June murders of three Israeli teens, deaths that led Israel to launch a 50-day war in Gaza. Deadly reprisals threaten to derail talks between Israel and Hamas in Cairo—and more locally, light-rail service in Jerusalem.

"We’re a democracy. Anyone can demonstrate as much as he wants," Barkat said, referring to the protests targeting CityPass. "When people start throwing rocks, that’s a danger."

The city has turned to drones to try to deter violence away from light-rail infrastructure. Meanwhile, summer hotel occupancy in Jerusalem has plummeted to its lowest rate since 2000. While that's surely a result of the war, even now, with the war over, Jerusalem's light rail appears to have transformed from a symbol of reunification to one of division.

Barkat observed that the extreme tension in the city may pass. The majority of the Arab population does not approve of what's happened this summer, he said, citing polls (he didn't name them). Barkat said the fundamentals favor unity, referring to controversial findings from 2011 that Arabs living in Jerusalem would prefer the city to be part of Israel than Palestine.

"You have to understand the facts: The majority of the Arab population understands [this vandalism] is not good for them either," Barkat said. "The majority of the Arab population living in Jerusalem doesn’t like what happened in this summer."

Haaretz reports that light-rail use has dropped a staggering 70 percent since the demonstrations began this summer, and that security forces account for some of the riders still using CityPass. One extreme solution, according to the report, would see the light-rail line diverted around Palestinian neighborhoods to Pisgat Ze'ev, a Jewish neighborhood in northern Jerusalem—although that would take years, and effectively undermine the idea of a unifying transit system.

Barkat does not sound ready to give up on the dream of light rail across Jerusalem. He said that Palestinian abstinence in elections means that the government must compensate to serve these constituents, but that community councils work with local leaders to do so, in at least some neighborhoods. Barkat says that some zoning changes in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods, including a huge new potential development forthcoming for East Jerusalem, could help by providing jobs, housing, and resources. Not that he thinks it will necessarily be warmly received under the current circumstances.

"When we plan well, good news doesn’t travel. Only bad news," Barkat said. "We have a huge magnifying glass over our heads. Not only God looks at us, but the world as well."

The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are hosting "CityLab 2014: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges," in Los Angeles on September 29 & 30. Find's full coverage here.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. An aisle in a grocery store

    It's Not the Food Deserts: It's the Inequality

    A new study suggests that America’s great nutritional divide goes deeper than the problem of food access within cities.

  2. Transportation

    How Toronto Turned an Airport Rail Failure Into a Commuter Asset

    The Union Pearson Express launched with expensive rides and low ridership. Now, with fares slashed in half and a light rail connection in the works, it’s a legitimate transit alternative for workers.

  3. Equity

    Even the Dead Could Not Stay

    An illustrated history of urban renewal in Roanoke, Virginia.

  4. Environment

    Britain's Next Megaproject: A Coast-to-Coast Forest

    The plan is for 50 million new trees to repopulate one of the least wooded parts of the country—and offer a natural escape from several cities in the north.

  5. Equity

    Women Are Marching Again, But It's Not About Donald Trump

    In its second year, the Women’s March that dominated the nation's capital last January has decentralized, focusing on local issues in cities large and small.