‘Only dreamers achieve’

As he sets out to turn his city into a metropolis, Beersheba mayor Rubik Danilovich knows that vision alone won’t be enough.

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
January 30, 2010 13:12
Rubik Danilovich

Rubik Danilovich. (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)

 
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In some ways, Rubik Danilovich can be compared to former US president John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy who, at the age of 44 succeeded 71-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office, Danilovich’s defeat of Ya’acov Terner for the office of Beersheba mayor was an example of generational change – the latter being 73 years old, the former 37.

Danilovich, like Kennedy, is a warm, personable and engaging young man, quick to tell a self-deprecating joke or use a story to make his point. As president, Kennedy set lofty goals, some of them almost unimaginable at the time, a trait common to Danilovich as well. And finally, both exemplify that quality of charismatic leadership that makes people not only believe but want to join in to help – and both handpicked a cadre of especially bright, young and dedicated supporters to make sure the revolution took place.

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That’s about where the similarities end. Kennedy came from power, privilege and wealth, while the Beersheba-born Danilovich grew up in modest circumstances. As a bachelor, Danilovich so far lacks a “Jackie” to enhance his charm. And most significantly, Danilovich came to his elective office with far more experience than Kennedy. Despite his youth, when Danilovich stepped into the mayor’s office, he’d already accumulated 10 years of hands-on experience.  

“The time had come,” Danilovich recalls during an interview with Metro. “I’d served as a deputy mayor since I was 27. By the time the November 2008 elections came, I’d been intimately involved with city government for 10 full years,” he says.

“As I assessed the situation,” he continues, “I genuinely believed Mayor Terner would not run for a third term, so for me that election seemed perfectly timed. My biggest advantages were my age, my passion for the job, my knowledge and understanding of what the city of Beersheba needed – all of which had been ripening for a whole decade. If I’d waited, the moment might have passed me by, so I ran – and won with 60.5% of the vote as compared to 30% for Mayor Terner.”

Danilovich’s squeaky clean reputation manifested itself from the beginning.

“I didn’t run for mayor as deputy mayor,” he says. “Seven months before the election, I did the noble thing and quit. I didn’t want any ‘insider’ allegations or talk of conflict of interest.”



The decade-long apprenticeship gave him a distinct advantage after the election. 

“Running a city is like running a small state,” Danilovich says. “The mayor holds lots of power to get things done. But it’s a challenge, too. The mayor is also the minister of education, of housing, of transportation – he’s even the local fireman, not to mention being responsible for security,” he says.

“But I was ready. I was born right here and grew up in the Gimmel neighborhood; I went all through school here. My father was born here, my mother came from Tunisia. My grandparents are a mix – from Belarus, Egypt and Morocco. For all of those reasons, I’m enormously patriotic about Beersheba. There’s no question in my mind that the future of Israel lies right here in Beersheba. Why? Look at our land reserves. In terms of land area, Beersheba is three times the size of Tel Aviv. After Jerusalem, we’re the second biggest city in the country. Beyond that, we’re the capital of the Negev, which constitutes 60% of Israel’s land with just 9% of the population. That’s our first big advantage,” he states.

“Our human resources constitute our second big advantage. Of our population of 205,000, half are under the age of 34. If you add in the 30,000 students who live here, our talent pool is incomparable. In a broader sense, Beersheba serves the entire South – 600,000 people. When Beersheba is strong, then Ofakim is strong. If we’re strong, then Dimona – and Yeroham, Netivot, Sderot, every one of them is strong. So with all these incredible resources, with all this strength, how can we not succeed? Maybe I’m crazy, but that’s okay – I’m with George Bernard Shaw. We need more crazy people – look where the sane ones got us.”

Danilovich’s path to power started with a passion for football. “As a kid, that’s what I wanted to be: a famous football player. But leadership positions always attracted me. I was head of the student body in both elementary and high school. As soon as I got out of the army, I started organizing my fellow students. I realized then that young people like to gripe – this is wrong, that’s wrong. Nothing is quite right. But instead of siding with the naysayers and just criticizing, I decided to roll up my sleeves and work my way into places where decisions are made. Look at history – it’s perfectly clear: If you want to make a change, you have to get involved in politics. That’s where the power is.”

What needs changing in Beersheba? “Simply stated, I want Beersheba to be more green, more clean – and have many more places to throw garbage,” he quips. “I want to improve the overall quality of life in this city. I want people to know that Beersheba doesn’t need to go to sleep at 8 p.m. I want to add a lot more cultural events, all kinds of festivals and celebrations, things that would give flavor to our lives, something to interest everyone,” he says.

“Let me tell you a story. There was an old Chinese man who had two coins – that was all he had, nothing else. With one coin, he bought a loaf of bread. With the second, he bought a flower. People asked, ‘Why would you do that? Waste one coin on a flower?’ The old man shook his head: ‘I bought bread with one coin. That will allow me to live. With the second I bought a flower – that gives me something to live for.’ That’s what I want for Beersheba – quality of life, not just a place to live,” says the mayor.

But having the vision isn’t enough, he stresses. “You can come in with all the biggest ideas, all kinds of life-changing scenarios, but if you don’t have an established plan to carry them out, they’re all worthless. But even before you start to talk about implementation, the first thing you have to have is a proper administration – a clean, honest government. So that’s where I started.”

Danilovich set about cleaning house. “My first job was to fight against corruption in the city. I changed the way virtually everything was handled. Was it tough? Let’s just say that for my first five months in office, I had to have personal security 24/7. I had to make sure that our laws against corruption and under-the-table deals were enforced. Not everyone was delighted with that. But I knew this: If I was going to get anything at all done in this city, I had to make sure that the government was run in a straight, honest and above-board manner. Then, once I got things cleaned up, I could start implementing the changes I wanted to make,” he says.

Pulling open his desk drawer, Danilovich asks, “Do you know what I found in here? Lots and lots of ideas for projects, big projects and small, all kinds of things. But do you know what? There wasn’t one single work plan – not one single detailed plan for getting any of it done! That’s crazy. You can’t run a city the size of Beersheba unless you have a work plan, a detailed, specific outline that starts from day one, the very beginning, and runs out to 10 years – way beyond your own term of office. If a mayor doesn’t have a plan, the city will float aimlessly around like a ship without a captain.”

Danilovich made plans. “First of all, I wanted to change how Beersheba looks. I know there are those who don’t believe this,” he laughs, “but Beersheba has the potential to be a very beautiful and inviting city. Does that sound as though I’m critical of the way it looks now? You’re right. I am.  You have to be critical of yourself. If you aren’t, you can’t see what the problems are or find a way to correct them. So I held a competition for landscape architects from all over the country. I wanted the best of the best to design the public spaces in Beersheba – everything from sidewalks to garbage disposal, traffic circles, street furniture, with special emphasis on our crown jewel, Beersheba’s Old City. Right now, visually Beersheba has the character of a desert city – there’s lots of brown. But since I was a child, I dreamed of one thing: making Beersheba the city of water. I want this city to be an oasis in the desert. Come into Beersheba, and what you should see are waterfalls, a lake, fountains, water and greenery all over. Okay, there are those who think that sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. I have a work plan, and we’ve already got the money. We’re doing it. When children come into my office, I give them this little pin – see what it says? ‘Only dreamers achieve.’ I believe that. That’s how we operate.”

In these recessionary times, Danilovich stakes out bold territory. “Where do I get the money? That’s not a problem. Finding the money isn’t an issue – it’s all in how you ask. Here’s the thing: People want to donate money; they’re standing there waiting to give it to you. All they want is for you to thrill them. That’s it – they want to be thrilled. So that’s what our projects do – they thrill people. Like our new Beersheba River Park, which runs all along the banks of the ancient Nahal Beersheba. The River Park will encompass 5,200 dunams (5.2 sq.km). It will include a 100-dunam lake and the biggest amphitheater in Israel – a futuristic thing; wait till you see it. We’ve already built 400 dunams of walkways, bike paths, little groves and orchards, places to sit and relax. We’ve got a Sport-tech coming, and a private firm has already committed to building an enclosed market – like the one that exists in Barcelona. All of this is funded – the IDB Group, the JNF and a number of private donors, plus NIS 150 million from the government. These are the things I’ve wanted to do for years. These projects thrill people. It’s what Beersheba deserves.”

Lakes, in a desert city? Where will the water come from? “The first step is a purification plant to recycle water, all of which will come from recycled sources -– drain water, run-off. It won’t be drinkable water, but it’s fine for lakes, waterfalls and fountains. We’ll be reusing water, not wasting it.”

Today River Park is underway, a work in progress. What other changes in the city will people notice first? “Several of the smaller projects have already been built, such as little areas under shade trees, places to sit and relax all over the city. There’s more to come. Each has a tile floor, a bench or two, chairs, basic street furniture. Next come the fountains – they’ll be in place and working by June or July.  After that? We’re lighting up all the historic buildings, all over the city. They’ll all be visible and beautiful at night. We are also committed to planting 5,000 trees a year, every year. These will be beautiful, colorful trees designed to enhance this image of Beersheba as an oasis, a green place with water and trees.”

But that’s just the first step. The second? “We’ve never capitalized on Beersheba’s biggest asset. Think about it: Tel Aviv is celebrating its 100th birthday. Petah Tikva, the first settlement, has been around for 130 years. A decade ago, Jerusalem celebrated 3,000 years. But Beersheba? It’s been 3,700 years since Abraham the Patriarch came here – and Abraham is father to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  More than three million tourists come to Israel every year, but so far they haven’t been coming to Beersheba. That will change. We’re developing an international center to welcome them because remember this: Religion is one of the strongest draws for tourism,” he reasons.

“I was in Brussels a while ago, in Belgium. A man said, ‘Have you seen our big attraction?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘Where is it?’ So he took me to see it. It’s a statue of a little boy peeing. People travel from all over the world to see what is called the Manneken Pis. And what does Beersheba have? Abraham the Patriarch! We’ll draw visitors of all faiths from all over the world. Beersheba will represent all the qualities Abraham represented – hospitality, patience, kindness, tolerance, love among people, peace.”

But how about jobs? Quality of life is one thing, but first people need jobs. “No, no,” the mayor says. “Quality of life includes jobs and employment. Quality of life is everything – education, recreation, culture, environment, employment, parking, a cool breeze from a fountain on a hot summer day. It’s all-encompassing. But if you want to talk about jobs specifically, the biggest national project in recent years is happening right now with the military moving south. First came the training base, next the elite intelligence unit will be relocating, right between Omer and Beersheba. Then, third, the IDF communications unit will be built adjacent to the big technology park, the huge enterprise that the city and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are building jointly,” he explains.

Beersheba’s future in terms of employment opportunities is exceptionally bright, he says. “Every year 4,000 engineers graduate from Beersheba’s several educational institutions. Our goal is to keep them here, to encourage them to stay. All these new industrial centers – various kinds of hi-tech – will make Beersheba the Silicon Valley of Israel. The tractors are on the ground right now. And for each one of them, all the people who work there will need ancillary services – everything from homes, schools and teachers to restaurants and entertainment centers, doctors and hospitals, services of all kinds from big businesses to small,” he says.

“Something wonderful is happening here in the South,” Danilovich smiles. “But I admit I am a cockeyed optimist. I find good even in things that look bad. But what I see now is that after decades of promises from all the governments of Israel, things are finally changing in the Negev. The country is coming together. The Trans-Israel Highway is a miracle all by itself. And look at the trains! When I came in as deputy mayor in 1999, there were two trains a day between Beersheba and Tel Aviv. One left at 7:00 in the morning, and another returned in the evening. Ten years later, admittedly after some incredible struggles and major fights, we now have 36 trains a day between the two cities. A year from today – when they finish doubling the tracks – we’ll have five trains an hour plus a midnight train, with a travel time of 46 minutes! That’s a major revolution. And what it means is this: The idea of the ‘periferia’ is over. There will be no more outskirts. Beersheba won’t be isolated. It won’t be outside anything. In that sense, the whole country will be like New York – every place will be accessible to every other place.”

When Mayor Danilovich starts to talk about what he calls Beersheba’s “crown jewel,” he beams. “The Old City is our treasure, and for decades, but the city never figured out a way to handle it. When I was a boy, we went to the Old City for everything. Whether it was movies, games, the places we went to eat, to shop, everything was there. Then the first big mall was built, and the Old City fell into decline. This wasn’t unique to Beersheba. It was happening all over the world. But all along, people would say, ‘Let’s restore the Old City to its former glory’ – but we can’t do that, not literally. The Old City can’t become what it used to be, the major business district. But it can and will become something even better. Beersheba’s Old City is unique in the entire world. This was the only city the Turks built during the 400 years of the Ottoman Empire. We have to find a way to highlight its uniquely beautiful setting with art galleries, cafes, museums, music, culture, performances, restaurants, wine festivals, beer festivals – every kind of thing that would draw people to it again.” he says.

“We’re starting by offering any company working in culture – hotels, cafes, restaurants, galleries – to qualify for a significant reduction in property tax if they open in or relocate to the Old City. Next, we’re considering each of the Old City’s target cultures – youth, artists, musicians, families, students, all kinds of working people, senior citizens. The Old City should be vital all the time, the place everyone will want to go for something. The old Turkish-era historic buildings are coming first. We’re working with the Rashi Foundation to develop the historic School for Sheikh’s Children into the Youth Science Park. That will be ready in about 18 months and will function both as an educational institution and part of the museum complex. There’s the Negev Museum of Art, the Archeological Museum that will open shortly in the old mosque, as well as the Turkish train station that’s in the process of being restored. The train station will have actual train cars and tracks for authenticity. Those things are already happening,” he says.

Places for the anticipated new residents to live are also being built. “Our goal is to add 80,000 people in 10 years,” Danilovich says. “We’ve got lots of land on all sides of the city, so new neighborhoods are being built. There’ll be lots of different kinds of housing, some with lots of land on all sides. We want people to be able to choose what kind of home they live in.”

Does it sound too good to be true? Can all this really happen? “That’s one problem with politicians,” Danilovich says. “They promise everything right now, right away. That’s why I’m not a politician. I don’t promise it all right away – but I do tell people what I’m planning and what will happen in the future. This month, for the first time in history, we’re mailing out 30-page brochures to every household in Beersheba. In words and photos, it shows exactly what we’re doing. I’m a great believer in public accountability. I tell the people of Beersheba the truth, what I can do and what I can’t. In the brochure, I’ll tell them what I’ve done, what I plan to do – and when they can expect it,” he explains.

“It’s understandable, but for so many years Beersheba occupied itself with welfare and social issues. We have people from over 70 different cultures and backgrounds in this city, and they all had their own problems and limitations, whether it was in acculturation, language, employment or something else. But now it’s time for Beersheba to move to the next stage. Now we’re going to play on our strengths, not on our need. No more will we go begging for help because we need it. Now what we do is say, ‘Look here. This is what we’re doing. We’re the wave of the future, here – if you’d like, you’re welcome to join us and be a part of it.’”

There’s no question but that a great generational change has taken place in Beersheba. “That’s right. The city does reflect our young leadership. Over the last several years, people really have done their work, and I’m grateful with all my heart to them for everything they’ve done. I’ll never forget that. In fact, every month former mayor Eliyahu Nawi comes in and we have a quiet cup of coffee together. He just celebrated his 90th birthday; he served as Beersheba’s mayor for 23 years, from 1963 to 1986, so I learn a lot from him. He tells me, ‘When I was mayor, I did everything I could to collect all the new immigrants and turn the village of Beersheba into a city. Now it’s your turn to make it into a metropolis,’” he says.

“That’s exactly the plan. That’s what we’re working on right now.”

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