The return of ‘Israel’s favorite mayor’?

A candidate for Ra’anana once again, Ze’ev Bielski is hoping to win back residents’ hearts.

FORMER RA’ANANA mayor and MK Ze’ev Bielski 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
FORMER RA’ANANA mayor and MK Ze’ev Bielski 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ze’ev Bielski wants to be the mayor of Ra’anana, again. First elected in 1989 and subsequently reelected three times (he left when former prime minister Ariel Sharon tapped him to head the Jewish Agency in 2005), Bielski was one of the most popular mayors in the country, earning the title of “Israel’s favorite mayor” from Yediot Aharonot in 2005.
Ra’anana’s character as a city partially stems from its origin as a settlement founded by American immigrants; almost a century later, one-tenth of its residents are still English speakers. The city is decidedly upscale, featuring a technological park that provides high-end employment at firms such as Microsoft and Hewlett- Packard. In a time of considerable religious tension in the country, the city’s secular majority and modern Orthodox minority are often touted as a model of coexistence.
However, the city is now hundreds of millions of shekels in the red, and the population is dropping. These are some of the points that Bielski says he will address if reelected.
Bielski, 64, positions himself in many ways as an Anglo candidate, citing his South African wife and inlaws, all of whom came to Israel with him following his stint as the aliya emissary of the Jewish Agency in South Africa during the late 1970s. A former major in the IDF and a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he is as Israeli as they come, but he says his experiences abroad and his subsequent familial ties and residence in Ra’anana have made him a part of the English-speaking community.
“I was the mayor for almost 17 years here, and I loved every day of it,” he says, explaining why he is seeking reelection. “I was elected four times, and the last time, I got a vote of confidence of almost 80 percent...
I didn’t think I would ever leave Ra’anana.”
However, when he got a call from Sharon to head the Jewish Agency, he says, he “couldn’t say no.”
While he recalls having tears in his eyes as he left the municipality, he believes that “people really appreciated that I was leaving for a mission, a new Jewish and Zionist mission.”
A stint in the Knesset followed his term as Jewish Agency head, after which he was at a loose end.
“I didn’t run for the Knesset again, and then I had [a few] options: either to go into business, or to go to work for a few NGOs that wanted me to serve, [or even] to go to another city. There were a lot of people in other cities who wanted me to come, [who told me,] ‘Bielski, you do for us what you did for Ra’anana,’” he says.
However, Ra’anana exerted an irresistible pull, he says. “My heart said, ‘Ze’evik, you are going back to Ra’anana – this is a place that you love.’ I know every stone in Ra’anana, I know every tree, I know every kindergarten, I know every school. I built a lot. I was involved in many things, and it made me very happy.”
NOW CAMPAIGNING for a fifth, nonconsecutive term, he is canvassing the streets, attending parlor meetings and hoping to be reelected come October.
The Anglo community in the city is especially important to him, he asserts.
“All of my environment is Englishspeaking,” he says. “Now, all my life I was dealing with aliya. I was [an] aliya emissary in South Africa. I was then appointed to be the head of the aliya department in South Africa. When I came back, I was one of the founders of the Israeli Forum, which was a nonprofit organization that dealt with the relationship between the young generation in the Diaspora and the young generation in Israel.”
His mother-in-law, he says, has been insistent that he reach out to the Anglo community, something that seems to be in character for a mayor who spent the better part of two decades sticking to an open-door policy.
“When you say, ‘Ze’ev Bielski,’ you say open door, open telephone, 24 hours at the service of the people, and I’m going to do exactly what I did before,” he promises. “Every letter to the mayor will be answered within 24 hours personally by me. I read all the letters that come. I answer them personally, I see that things will be done. I speak with people.”
During his previous tenure, he would sometimes answer the municipal hotline himself and give out his cellphone number freely.
“I listened to [constituents] and I learned about their problems firsthand,” he recalls. “I don’t have to wait until a catastrophe is coming, I can see that if there are too many complaints about one thing, [I can figure out] what to do about it before it becomes bigger, and that’s what I’m going to do [again].”
He says it gives the people “huge satisfaction... when they bring a problem and they get a solution.”
Returning to the issue of English speakers, he says that “I always explain to the Israelis who were born here, ‘Listen, you will never understand the feeling of aliya,’” and that Anglos who come to Israel from First World countries “came from a pure Zionist motivation.”
As such, he says, he wants to support the English-speaking immigrant community as much as he can.
“The aliya process is difficult,” he says. “That is why I am going to be with them. I am going to support [the community], I’m going to help it. I know how hard it is, and I know how valuable it is for the State of Israel and the city of Ra’anana.”
BIELSKI TERMS the city’s current fiscal woes “unfortunate” and says he “never dreamed that Ra’anana would be in a financial situation like today.”
Once elected, he says, he plans “to make the necessary changes to stabilize the financial situation.
There are various expenses that are not necessary, and I’m going to try and push for more income, to bring more businesses to Ra’anana. At the time, I brought hi-tech to Ra’anana.
We never were a city of hi-tech, and you see the skyline in Ra’anana, you see all these big buildings, and each one I brought personally. I want to persuade people to come. I’m going to do it immediately now, and by [doing] this I will improve the income dramatically.”
Bielski says he wants to cut expenses, especially expenditures on outside consultants, and bring more jobs to the city. Part of his plan, he explains, is figuring out a way to minimize the city’s interest payments to its creditors and to “take this money and put it in the educational system and in the welfare department.”
“The municipality is paying a lot of money for outside experts and lawyers and getting opinions, and I think we have enough good people within the municipality [that] I don’t have to spend all this big money,” he explains, claiming that such a move “will save us millions.”
He also proposes building a ring road around the city to divert commuter traffic from Herzliya and Kfar Saba that is straining local infrastructure.
One of his most important priorities, he says, is attracting younger people through aggressive development of housing.
“Unfortunately, in the last eight years, the demographics have not been in our favor because there are more people who have left Ra’anana than have come to Ra’anana. This was a shock to me,” he says. “When I started, there were 50,000 people in Ra’anana, and when I left for the Jewish Agency we had 80,000 people.
Today we have fewer people than we had before [68,300], and that’s because unfortunately, in [recent] years, we didn’t build flats in Ra’anana, so most of the young generation are leaving us for Kfar Saba, for Hod Hasharon, for Herzliya.”
He is confident that he will get support from the prime minister, with whom he says he has already spoken about the matter, and he hopes to “start again building neighborhoods in Ra’anana.”
“Some of the flats will be small, and that will an opportunity for the young generation to stay in Ra’anana and not to go anywhere else,” he adds.
HE RESPONDS harshly to challenger Eitan Gluck, who recently told The Jerusalem Post that “the city used to prosper under Bielski, but that was at a time when the city had money. Now no one’s guaranteeing that he can run the city when resources are depleted.”
“This is not true,” Bielski replies, stating that “there wasn’t money” when he was first elected.
“There were no plans. We started from the beginning, from scratch, and we built a city that was a model for all the cities in Israel,” he says.
“You must understand, a city like Ra’anana has a NIS 600 million- NIS 700m.-a-year budget. You have to treat it with respect. You have to know how to run an organization like this with 1,800 workers. This is something we did so well; that’s why the financial situation was so good, and that’s why people came.”
In a direct jab at Gluck, Bielski says it would be a good idea for prospective mayors to sit on the city council first and “develop themselves” before running for the top job.
In response to his opponent’s statement that there are barely any natural growth engines in Ra’anana and that there is little possibility at present to expand beyond 3,000 or 4,000 housing units, Bielski says there is much greater potential than Gluck sees.
“We have got room for thousands of units, we have got room for hundreds of thousands of square meters of hi-tech that I am going to bring to Ra’anana. We are going to have a railway coming to Ra’anana in two years’ time, and I’m going to bring hitech to where the railway is – it goes together, and that will be the engine of Ra’anana,” he says. “I am going to encourage businesses and companies to move to Ra’anana... and by this we are going to grow.”