When it comes to Israeli politics, the lens is often macro. Attention gravitates around what the central government is doing to prepare for external threats, enhance security and shore up alliances abroad. But what about the micro view – local government – the point that touches directly and most frequently the lives of the country’s 8.6 million residents? Municipalities, after all, “serve as the executive arm of the Israeli government,” says Haim Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities and mayor of Modi’in-Maccabim- Reut. The municipalities are responsible for running all aspects of daily life, he points out – including transportation, education, sports, culture and welfare – areas that directly impact the quality of life for so many.
First elected mayor in 2008 and again in 2013, he was then elected as the chairman of the FLAI by a majority of mayors throughout Israel in 2014. As such, Bibas has pushed for their interests with government and its ministries.
Among these interests, he regards education as the top priority. Under his leadership as mayor, Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut boasts one of the highest high-school graduation rates in the country. The municipal budget allocates more than 50% of its funds to education, which Bibas says is the most important component in a city’s development.
Investing in education, he believes, is also the best way to close gaps in Israeli society. As chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, he says his role is to promote all sectors, including the Arab, Beduin and Druse. This includes equalizing the balance of opportunities between center and periphery, high economically rated cities as well as lower rated ones.
To ensure the funds to sustain educational priorities, he works closely with the prime minister, as well as the education and finance ministers. Bibas says that such close ties have been part of his approach as chairman.
“I have served three times as head of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign and therefore have good relations with the government. I believe this has brought something different to local governments.” He adds that close partnerships with national leaders and Knesset members is key to resolving almost every concern, except matters pertaining to the IDF, which is the sole prerogative of the central government.
Bibas underlines the importance of such collaboration with an anecdote.
“About six years ago, I was invited, along with members of the Knesset, to the State Department in Washington. We learned about local, state and federal governments.” While many things between the US and Israeli governments are similar, Bibas says, there is one big difference.
“In Israel the government takes most of the tax for education, transportation, culture, etc.”
This means that municipalities have a smaller tax base for just the essentials: street cleaning and garbage pickup, for example. Thus, a large part of a city’s budget comes from the central government. This structure necessitates close contact and frequent negotiation with the Knesset and ministries to achieve municipal goals and “convince government where to help.”
But is this relationship symbiotic? Do cities only receive the benefits of central government or do they give back? Bibas believes they can give back by embracing the ideal of “smart cities.”
Many cities in Israel are deeply involved in trying to lure technology, services and enterprises to the “Start-up Nation,” Bibas says.
They have planned ‘MUNI-EXPOS’ for the purpose.
“Next February we would like to give it a professional touch by inviting participants not only from Israel, but from abroad,” he adds.
“We would like to bring mayors from sister cities all over the world to Israel and work together on building the smart city, with the help of conferences and incentives to entice companies to come to Israel.”
Bibas’s own Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut, for example, has twinned with the city of Rochester.
“When I came to my sister city in upstate New York we discussed the same things, and looked to solve the same problems. Wherever the city is, we often speak about the same issues,” he says.
With the help of these exchanges, Modi’in- Maccabim-Reut has experimented with new ways to streamline garbage collection and help residents find parking spots, while making lighting in city parks more efficient. Bibas says these improvements have “given more money back to the residents.”
With this kind of teamwork on the local level among cities, Bibas believes we can bring a whole new perspective to seemingly intractable problems, like peace among Israelis and Palestinians. On this thorny topic, he offers another detail from his visit to the US State Department. During his time with senior members of the department, the issue of political borders kept coming up, he recalls.
“I told them that if we would like to promote real peace in the State of Israel, first we have to start with the common issues among cities,” Bibas says. In his role as a municipal leader, he has exchanged ideas on city improvement with leaders of Arab communities.
This is the natural starting point for peace initiatives, he explains, because “we have common goals when it comes to education and transportation, and many other areas.”
Before they try to discuss borders, he concludes, “they need to talk about these things.” This article was written in cooperation with the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel.