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New mayor offers Jerusalem a secular turn

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Precisely because this is the storied city that Israel calls its eternal capital and Palestinians call occupied, the person who runs Jerusalem's top office is poised to play an important roll in future peace talks.

Across East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, Arab residents routinely sit out of the municipal elections as a symbol of their rejection of Israeli rule. Were they to exercise their right to vote, they would make up close to a third of the electorate. Arab East Jerusalemites are also allowed to vote in Palestinian Authority elections.

Ir Amim, an Israeli organization working for "an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future," is concerned about Barkat's connections with Israeli nationalists who want to settle Jews in East Jerusalem.

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday evening, Barkat indicated that he would address the problem of skyrocketing real estate prices by building apartments in occupied East Jerusalem. "I see no reason not to build apartments in areas that are under our law for people who want to stay in the city.... That's one reason I want to expand Jewish neighborhoods throughout East and West Jerusalem," he said.

Israeli building over the pre-1967 border, which did not include East Jerusalem, is considered illegal by the United Nations, and longstanding US policy officially discourages Israeli building in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank because it would prejudice the outcome of the future peace talks.

"We should expand current Jewish neighborhoods and build affordable housing, but not at the expense of developing Arab neighborhoods," said Barkat.

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