The changing face of Bat Yam

Newly elected Mayor Yossi Bachar fights off claims of corruption and shares insight into his evolving city.

Bat Yam mayor Yossi Bachar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bat Yam mayor Yossi Bachar
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The city of Bat Yam has been getting attention- grabbing headlines as of late, both positive and negative. The 2009 corruption charges against former mayor Shlomo Lahiani cast a shadow over positive developments that are also taking shape. Lahiani, who had been mayor since 2003, stepped down in February 2014, and the city council appointed his close friend Yossi Bachar as acting mayor. Himself a city council member, Bachar was elected mayor on January 13, beating fellow councilman Eli Yariv by 491 votes in an election with only a 31% voter turnout rate.
The 47-year-old Bachar spent his year as acting mayor proving himself to be a dominant political figure and making strides in technology, business, real estate and education for the city. These accomplishments were not without criticism, however, from those who believe his close connection to Lahiani also makes him corrupt.
Lahiani established the party that the two have headed, Bat Yam Berosh Muram (Bat Yam Heads-Up). Bachar served as ninth on Lahiani’s list during his second mayoral campaign in 2008, and as No. 4 when he ran again in 2013. In a Channel 2 exposé shortly after Bachar’s mayoral win, footage showed Lahiani celebrating, chanting merrily and referring to the victory as “my win.” Critics bashed the former mayor for taking credit for Bachar’s victory, and regarding his influence in the campaign.
But Bachar says he has nothing to hide.
“Lahiani was involved in my campaign, definitely. But we never tried to hide that. I like to explain it like this: Imagine that the captain of a soccer team gets a red card and has to go sit out on the bench. Well, the team doesn’t also have to go sit on the bench. The team has to keep playing, and they have to find another captain.
It’s the same thing... we kept going,” he says.
Bachar attributes his own success to Lahiani’s triumphs as mayor, saying that the people of Bat Yam remember how the city was before Lahiani held the position. He says his opponents in the race were the same people who nearly brought the city to bankruptcy 10 years ago.
“The city of Bat Yam chose me. I have done so much good for the city over the past year, and before me what Lahiani accomplished was visible,” he says. “The people see it in the streets. The crime rate has gone down. The kindergartens are renovated.
The real estate projects... they are all proof of the good we’ve done.”
He attributes the relatively low voter turnout rate to the indifference of the citizens.
“When the people are happy, they leave it as it is,” he says. “It’s when they are unhappy that they come to vote.”
Comments from a number of Bat Yam residents seem to reflect those sentiments.
Shopkeeper Gonen, who asks that his last name not be published, and whose spice shop sits in the middle of the city’s busy Rothschild Street, says he didn’t vote because he didn’t have time. But even if he had voted, he adds, he isn’t sure which candidate he would have chosen.
“It doesn’t bother me either way,” he says.
Another resident, Shahar, says he did not vote because he didn’t think it would make a difference.
“I already knew Bachar would win,” he says. “Too many people hated Yariv. That is the reason Bachar won.
If the other side had had a different, new candidate, Bachar would have lost.”
Other residents, meanwhile, actively showed their support for Lahiani and Bachar at the polls.
Benyamin Israel, a 35-year-old real- estate broker, says he voted for Bachar “because he is one of us. He’s a man for the citizens. He grew up here, he lives here. He’s all about rejuvenating the city, just like Lahiani.
About the criticism against him, I don’t care. I don’t take a part in that.”
Outside a kiosk on Ha’atzmaut Boulevard, Yossi sits with a group of men playing backgammon. He says he has lived in Bat Yam since the 1970s and voted for Bachar, and before that for Lahiani. He expresses satisfaction with their party and the influence they’ve had on the city.
However, Mazal, a woman in her 60s who says she has lived in Bat Yam since she was in high school, voted for Yariv.
Still, she says, “I only voted for him because I know someone who works for him. Otherwise, really, you know everyone is the same. The truth is that I don’t believe in anyone anymore.”
While she’s noticed positive developments in the city, she says more could be done.
According to the administrators of the Facebook page The Forum for Bat Yam Residents, which has over 8,000 ‘likes,’ Bachar won because Lahiani was behind him. Lahiani is loved by many, the administrators tell Metro. They believe the Bachar campaign had as much as three times the amount of funding the Yariv campaign had, a factor that likely contributed to his win.
The fanfare surrounding Bachar appears to be based on accomplishments by Bat Yam Berosh Muram. The new mayor stresses that the city has greatly progressed in the past 10 years since the party took office, including a 20 percent decline in the crime rate in the last five years. The new image of the city – which previously had a reputation for high crime – is bringing renewed life to the seaside town, Bachar says. He also attributes the recent development in Bat Yam to the increase in prices in Tel Aviv, a mere 20-minute drive away.
“Because of our proximity to Tel Aviv, landowners have begun selling their land to entrepreneurs and businesses that see the potential here,” he explains. “We also encourage entrepreneurs to bring their offices here.
Obviously it is better to have an office building in Tel Aviv... because it’s the center... but we have given an incentive to the first businesses that bring their offices here. We offer the lowest arnona [municipal tax] in Israel, for 18 years.”
That approach, he says, has “created a lot of innovation and projects that we haven’t seen in the past. There are four new buildings on the way.”
Along with the buildings, new seaside hotels are being built with tourists in mind. Bachar stresses that the real estate market is hot, but won’t last forever, because land is limited.
Among the other assets he touts about his city are the lowest air pollution in the country, and the best transportation system. He also says that within a 10-minute walk of any point in Bat Yam, there is a kindergarten and an elementary school. The city’s goal is to bring in young families, both from inside the country and from abroad. Indeed, the city has been preparing for a new wave of immigrants, specifically from anti-Semitism- plagued France.
“The first thing I did when I got elected was create a French desk in our absorption center, something we didn’t have before,” the mayor says.
“We are doing campaigns in France and translating material about the city into French. It’s important for them to know: We are ready to receive them, and we will do everything we can to welcome them. If the desk isn’t enough, we will do more.”
The absorption center has desks for other languages as well and is preparing for immigration from other European countries. A recent wave of Ukrainian immigrants, for instance, landed in Bat Yam.
The municipal lines of the city have also come under scrutiny, with the Interior Ministry examining the possibility of redrawing lines around the country in order to help redistribute funds from struggling municipalities.
An option on the table would be the union of Tel Aviv with Holon and Bat Yam, making them one large municipality.
However, a Smith Institute poll from November 2014 indicated that 58% of Bat Yam residents opposed such a unity.
Bachar, too, is vehemently against the move. “Short answer: No, and it will not happen... We are a pearl, we’re happy here. It won’t happen.
The public won’t let it happen, and that only proves how good it is for us here.”