Pragmatic or visionary?

Incumbent mayor of Modi’in Haim Bibas hopes to win reelection, but needs to prove he can solve the city’s problems first.

Haim Bibas (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haim Bibas
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Driving through Modi’in last week, a visiting former resident described what he saw as “unrecognizable. None of this was here 10 years ago. This was all empty hills.”
Indeed, Israel’s youngest city has gone through unprecedented development over the last few years, and if Haim Bibas has his way, it will continue to do so. The current mayor and electoral hopeful has a grand vision of what Modi’in will ultimately look like.
Bibas moved to Modi’in at his wife’s behest in 1997, shortly after it was founded, and has raised his children here. He was the volunteer deputy mayor within 10 years of arriving, and is now running for his second term as the head of the city. Comparing being a mayor in Israel to the role of a general manager, Bibas is focused on development. Armed with a master’s of public administration and local government from Bar- Ilan University, combined with years of experience in local government, Bibas feels he is the prime candidate to be Modi’in’s next mayor.
A modern planned city, Modi’in, or Modi’in- Maccabim-Reut since the 2003 merger, is equidistant (about 30 minutes’ driving) from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and five minutes from Road 6. Bibas is clearly proud to head what he calls “the greenest city in Israel,” home to over 300 hectares of parks; half of the city’s master plan is designated as “green space,” a status that cannot be changed.
The mayor is also extremely proud of the fact that the city dedicates over 50 percent of its budget to education. He credits this budgetary commitment and close cooperation with the city’s educational professionals for the marked improvement in the percentage of students receiving their matriculation certificate – increasing the rate from just over 72% in 2009 to just over 81% in 2013. He also credits the bountiful education budget with endowing Modi’in with the best teachers and schools in all of Israel.
Bibas describes Modi’in as a city for families, emphasizing that it attracts young professionals, residents’ average age is 32 and 65% are academics or business professionals. This contributes to Modi’in having one of the highest socioeconomic standards of living in Israel.
But what makes Modi’in unique, according to Bibas, is the people – who are secular and religious (25% of all residents are observant), native and immigrant. Bibas notes the different communities are able to coexist for several reasons, including the national-religious nature of the observant community, which contributes by serving in the army and working. He also references Modi’in’s Yachad schools, which focus on educating children of different religious backgrounds in combined classes. Bibas stresses this interaction extends beyond the pupils, and the exposure allows for religiously diverse neighborhoods such as Buchman to flourish.
Listening to Bibas describe Modi’in, it seems almost idyllic – with parks galore, cultural festivals and excellent schools.
However, there are major challenges for this still quite young city, as affordable and available housing, mass and public transit within and to/from the city, local businesses and jobs, and particularly nightlife are all severely lacking. Additionally, as much as education is a feature of the city, Modi’in lacks any institutes of higher education.
Bibas would like to attract more businesses to the city so residents do not have to leave for work; and for those that do, he seeks to improve mass transit to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He envisions increasing industrial and commercial business in Modi’in, and aims to attract large industrial companies, small businesses, and bars and restaurants. Bibas asserts the space is available, and now the roads need to be built.
The biggest challenge, according to the mayor, is time. He notes that in this digital age, citizens can contact him directly and in an instant – and they expect solutions just as quickly. Bibas emphasizes that it takes time to build a city. Nevertheless, with an average 5,000 new residents a year, time may not be on the mayor’s side. New and growing families may not want to wait for the construction to finish or the jobs to arrive, and those without a car may not want to wait for transportation projects to be completed. Residents may grow tired of constantly going to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for a night out.
The mayor is in talks with the Transportation Ministry to build a railway to Jerusalem (there is already a railway to Tel Aviv), and while there are buses operated by the Kavim company, he is looking to extend and add to their lines. Finally, Bibas has plans to establish an institute of higher education in the city to retain students, who he hopes will stay on and live in and work at one of the many companies he hopes to attract to Modi’in.
Bibas has a five-year plan for the city, which includes the construction of two new neighborhoods. This plan, which he expects to publish in the next few weeks, details how he will accomplish all of his ambitious goals. Another of the mayor’s goals is for Modi’in to have a city center to host the liv ely nightlife he envisions. This area would be in the style of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas; the boulevard would have a walkway, bike path and greenery, with apartments atop the businesses and offices.
Recently, Modi’in made international news for reasons Bibas was neither seeking nor is concerned about. The EU added the city to the list of settlements whose exports will not be considered as made in Israel, making them ineligible for tax breaks upon import to EU member countries.
While this decision caused uproar throughout Israel and the Jewish world – as Modi’in, with the exception of a small ribbon of land, is within the Green Line – Bibas remains unconcerned.
“They based their decision on the wrong information,” the mayor notes, effectively dismissing the issue. They are talking about empty land and this declaration will not cause Modi’in problems, he says, explaining that such a matter needs to be handled by the foreign minister and the prime minister. However, he does add that the decision is damaging to all people, not just Israelis or Jews.
Bibas hopes his vision and accomplishments will resonate with voters, and they will hand him the reins for another term.
He says that what separates him from his opponents is his experience. His budgetary and managerial experience, especially in development, along with his educational achievements and his capacity to bring money into the city are essential to Bibas’s plans for continuing the city’s development.
The budgetary commitment to education, doubling the allotment for cultural activities, and improving community and city infrastructure, are all accomplishments cited by the mayor.
Bibas’s passion for Modi’in is clear; he has a grand vision for the city and plans to see it through. It is now to be seen if the voters of Modi’in agree.