Israel’s two senior mayors eye the premiership with great relish

Israel’s two senior mayors – Tel Aviv’s Ron Huldai and Jerusalem’s Nir Barkat – are eyeing the premiership, much the way former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad started off as mayor of Tehran.

London Mayor Boris Johnson (center) chats with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai during his visit to Israel, November 9 (photo credit: REUTERS)
London Mayor Boris Johnson (center) chats with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai during his visit to Israel, November 9
(photo credit: REUTERS)
HAVING CAUGHT the media’s attention by riding buses and accommodating dissidents, in Moscow mayor Boris Yeltsin in the late 1980s cleverly used the municipality as a springboard to national leadership and international stardom.
He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.
In 1882, a mere three years before he landed in the White House and dealt with issues like naval expansion, interstate commerce and the gold standard, mayor Grover Cleveland was shoulder deep in Buffalo, New York’s street-cleaning act. And 100 years later, in France, Jacques Chirac moved up from the mayoralty of Paris, where he dealt with vacuuming dogs’ feces, to the country’s presidency, during which time he detonated a nuclear bomb in the Pacific, infuriating half the world.
Now, with London Mayor Boris Johnson widely touted as Britain’s next prime minister and Republican doyens prodding former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to change his mind and confront Donald Trump for the US presidency, Israel’s two senior mayors – Tel Aviv’s Ron Huldai and Jerusalem’s Nir Barkat – are eyeing the premiership, much the way former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad started off as mayor of Tehran.
While the two, undoubtedly, are inspired by foreign and local precedents, and though they bring highly relevant, and in many ways similar, track records, their budding campaigns will likely end up demonstrating not what makes, but rather what can prevent someone from becoming the leader of the Jewish state.
Barkat and Huldai, the former affiliated with Likud and the latter with Labor, understandably look at the career paths of Ehud Olmert and Amram Mitzna and ask themselves, “If they could, why can’t I?”
Olmert became prime minister less than three years after ending his nine-year mayoralty of Jerusalem, and Mitzna became Labor’s chairman, and its prime ministerial candidate, after two terms as mayor of Haifa.
Moreover, before Olmert and Mitzna there were other mayors who were considered eligible to run as prime ministers, though they never tested their potential as national leaders.
Fabled Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek was touted as Golda Meir’s successor following her resignation in 1974, but ended up endorsing his longtime friend Shimon Peres’s candidacy for head of the Labor Party against Yitzhak Rabin’s.
Consequent events make one wonder how Israeli history would have unfolded had the tough-minded, pragmatic and politically clean Kollek resolved at the time to leap from the mayoralty to the premiership.
The same goes for Labor’s Eliyahu Nawi, the Iraqi-born jurist and Middle East expert whose era as mayor of Beersheba from 1963-1986 was for that city what Kollek’s 28-year mayoralty was for Jerusalem.
In some respects, the current mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, aged 57 and 71, respectively, have good reason to compare themselves with such legendary predecessors.
Barkat, during his seven years as mayor, and even more so Huldai, who has been running Tel Aviv since 1998, are able managers fully dedicated to their cities and are closely identified with them. Succeeding career-politicians in the office, they brought to their respective town halls a sense of freshness and idealism ‒ Huldai as a retired air force general who went on to run a high school, and Barkat as a hi-tech millionaire who assumed the mayoralty for a one-shekel salary.
Huldai has left an indelible imprint on Tel Aviv.
After refurbishing historic boulevards like Rothschild and Ben-Gurion, he turned the city’s abandoned seaport and Ottoman train station into fashionable food courts and shopping areas; he developed the rundown Sarona quarter as an elegant hangout in the midst of the city’s stack of skyscrapers; stretched the beachfront boardwalk to Herzliya in the north and Bat Yam in the south; paved extensive bicycle paths studded with rent-a-bike stations; and he emerged as a patron of the arts, renovating the national theater Habima and personally serving on the Cameri Theater and Tel Aviv Museum boards of governors.
Up in Jerusalem, Barkat’s imprint is younger and, therefore, a bit shallower, but it is of the same stripe.
A native of Beit Hakerem, a veteran, secular, middle-class neighborhood where he still resides, Barkat extended the Begin highway; modernized the open-air Mahane Yehuda Market; multiplied the city’s hitech start-ups; sparked a construction drive; rejuvenated the downtown area; cultivated secular nightlife; expanded Friday-night cultural events, and redid the city’s Ottoman railway station as a cyclists’ and joggers’ park abutting a string of trendy restaurants and cafés.
Even opponents of the two agree it would be unfair to compare their records with those of Kollek, Nawi and the rest of the generation of legendary mayors who were tasked with building entire cities from scratch.
Similarly, all agree that Barkat’s and Huldai’s accomplishments are no less impressive than the rest of today’s aspiring prime ministers.
Running the country’s political and commercial capitals with 4.9 billion shekel and 5.5 billion shekel budgets, respectively, and some 7,000 municipal workers each, is no less complex and, in many ways, much more challenging than running many government ministries.
That doesn’t mean the two’s prime ministerial bids will be successful.
The sometimes inverted biographies of the two men converge when it comes to sociology, and overlap when it comes to political clout.
The main difference, besides 14 years in age, is that Barkat is a city boy, whereas Huldai was raised on a kibbutz – Hulda, southeast of Tel Aviv, which is also where his family name comes from. As a kibbutznik, Huldai’s affiliation with Labor is hereditary, whereas Barkat’s affiliation with the Likud is acquired, and recent.
Originally, Barkat joined prime minister Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party and, in fact, ran its Jerusalem campaign during the 2006 elections, backing Olmert’s pledge to unilaterally leave the West Bank.
Since then, Barkat has taken a sharp turn to the right, now leading opponents of any Israeli departure from any part of east Jerusalem, and also staunchly backing the controversial NGOs that buy Arab-owned properties and house Jews in them.
Huldai, for his part, has challenged party leader Isaac Herzog by calling on Labor to hold primary elections soon, and also to shed its new name, the Zionist Union, which Labor assumed to team up with Kadima head Tzipi Livni, who, as daughter of right-wing Irgun leader Eitan Livni, couldn’t contemplate running for a party called Labor.
On the other hand, Huldai, whose parents were educators on the kibbutz they helped establish, is unable to contemplate shedding the name Labor. The party’s original name “carries moral value in my view,” he wrote in a statement to all party members, before proceeding to substantive policy issues.
“The diplomatic process must be reignited, and we must part with the Palestinians and restore the alliance with the US and Europe,” he stated.
Barkat, at the same time, is waging war on Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, charging that they are under-budgeting Jerusalem and that the government’s entire municipal financing policy should be overhauled.
While at it, he formally joined Likud and said he has no plans to leave the mayoralty “before the end of the current term” in 2018. In local political parlance, that statement is taken as the beginning of a prime ministerial bid.
In short, unlike their colleague in Israel’s third largest city, Yona Yahav, mayor of Haifa for the past 13 years, the mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv seem to be fed up dealing with garbage trucks, bus stops and lamp posts. Yet, while no one doubts their sincerity, few find anything innovative in their national messages, and some suspect they are more about ambition than conviction.
Whether valid or not, this lack of public appeal is fueled by their often similar merits and drawbacks.
The merits are clear. Huldai, who as a combat pilot downed three enemy fighter jets in three dogfights in two wars, is obviously a patriot. So is Barkat, a former paratrooper commander who was severely wounded in a battle in Lebanon and who, last year, subdued a terrorist near his mayoral office.
The two are also resourceful and conscientious.
Huldai’s six years as principal of Tel Aviv’s Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school was an exceptional move, the likes of which no other retired general in Israel – perhaps in all military history – has ever made.
Barkat’s transition from hi-tech stardom and wealth to public office also set a precedent, later emulated by Erel Margalit, now a Labor MK, and – on another scale – by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, now a former US presidential candidate.
A co-founder of venture capital fund BRM, which pioneered anti-virus software and successfully invested in Israeli data-security giant Check Point – Barkat is now reportedly worth more than $100 million, easily making him Israel’s richest politician.
Both mayors, then, bring to their bids assets that transcend their mayoral records and battlefield valor ‒ socialist roots and fervor, in Huldai’s case, entrepreneurship and money, in Barkat’s.
Sociologically, however, the two carry liabilities, as they hail from the veteran elite – their fathers being a Hebrew University physicist and a kibbutz school principal.
Despite being emblems of Israeli excellence, they are at the same time associated with the relatively well-born part of society from which most local hi-tech pioneers and combat pilots hail.
Regardless of their ancestry, in terms of their personalities both mayors seem unequipped to electrify the masses; neither is particularly telegenic, an inspiring orator or the propagator of new ideas. And, most crucially, neither is a true political animal.
Historically, other mayors who went on to become national leaders were actually much more politically equipped for national office than ordinary municipal leaders.
Chirac had been prime minister prior to becoming mayor, and before that interior minister. Olmert was a serving lawmaker for 20 years when he was elected mayor, as well as a former health minister. Cleveland was governor of New York between his mayoralty and presidency, and Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and successor who started off as mayor of Greenville, Tennessee, was in the interim a congressman and governor.
Huldai and Barkat bring no such records, however, and lack both the experience and troops their bids demand.
Huldai brings to mind the equally inexperienced Mitzna, whose prime ministerial bid ended in stinging defeat. Labor lost more than a quarter of its votes and Mitzna lasted less than a year at Labor’s helm.
Huldai will have a tough time convincing people his mayoralty has been, and that his party leadership will be, much better than Mitzna’s.
As for Barkat, he is entering what, for him, is altogether uncharted territory.
Barging into the ruling party’s maze of power struggles and personal rivalries, he is likely to quickly find himself confronted by potent coalitions he stands no chance of defeating. Veteran party operators, such as Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, coalition chairman Tzachi Hanegbi, or former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar have long forgotten the elementary politicking to which Barkat has not even been introduced.
Ultimately, with their bids either abandoned or defeated, the mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will understand that with all due respect to their municipal records, they lacked Boris Yeltsin’s and Boris Johnson’s charisma, Grover Cleveland’s and Andrew Johnson’s experience and Jacques Chirac’s – not to mention Ehud Olmert’s – political elbows, noses and minds.