Ehud Olmert to 'Post': Let local municipalities take care of their own

Jerusalem is a sharp and accurate reflection of the problems the State of Israel needs to deal with, especially at this time.

NATIONAL CORONAVIRUS Project Coordinator Prof. Ronni Gamzu visits the offices of the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
NATIONAL CORONAVIRUS Project Coordinator Prof. Ronni Gamzu visits the offices of the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
A good municipality is better than even the most successful and efficient national government. I should know, since I have personally experienced both. I served as mayor of Jerusalem for two terms, almost 10 years. Then, I served as minister in a number of government ministries, including the minority affairs, health, communications, trade and commerce and finance ministries. And after all that, I was elected prime minister.
Very few public figures throughout Israel’s history have accumulated such diverse experiences during their years of public service. In addition to serving in these government offices, I found myself as mayor of Jerusalem during one the city’s most difficult periods in its history. For many years during the Second Intifada, Jerusalem was the center of frequent murderous and ruthless terrorist activity.
Even back then, it was clear to me that there was a fundamental difference between being mayor of a city and being the prime minister of a country who is responsible for the entire country.
In a certain sense, a municipality is like a tiny government, especially when the city is a large metropolis like Jerusalem is. With a population of close to one million people, it’s almost like a small government by itself. The population of Jerusalem is almost 10% of the entire country’s population. The number of people who live in Jerusalem is more than twice the number than live in Tel Aviv, Israel’s second largest city, and Jerusalem is spread out over three times the amount of area as Tel Aviv.
So I ask myself, in view of the government’s overwhelming failure in handling the COVID-19 pandemic by treating the entire country as one single framework, if it wouldn’t have been better from the outset to outsource efforts to contain the contagion to Israel’s local municipality heads. Each city could then have set its own rules, put its own regulations in place, and dealt with the specifics of each city’s way of life. Each mayor could have analyzed their city’s needs regarding schools, small businesses, large enterprises in industrial zones, cultural institutions, nightlife, cafés and restaurants and come up with regulations that were fitting for their specific community.
Take Jerusalem, for example, since I know this city better than any other in Israel, and certainly better than any of our country’s national decision-makers. As I said above, Jerusalem is like a mini-country of its own, and as a result, we need to understand its complexities. It’s possible that it’s not actually very different from other cities, except for its immense size (well, for an Israeli city, that is), and also in terms of its extremely diverse population.
Jerusalem isn’t, however, just Israel’s largest city, it’s also Israel’s largest Arab city, Israel’s largest haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city and also home to the largest concentration of citizens from Israel’s National-Religious sector.
Jerusalem is home to more than 250,000 students who hail from all of the various communities that make up this diverse city. There are secular, religious and haredi schools. The haredi educational system itself is divided into a number of streams. Each hassidic community has its own schools, seminars for girls and yeshivas for boys. And of course, the Lithuanian haredi community has its own schools, too. In the Arab sector as well, Muslims and the Christians each have their own curricula.
Jerusalem is home to the largest welfare population of any Israeli city, and the highest number of children who live below the poverty line. Most of them are Jewish, but also quite a few are Arab.
Jerusalem is home to Israel’s leading academic institutions, both secular and haredi. Its health system is one of the largest in the country. It is where Israel’s governmental offices are located and where a good proportion of government employees live.
Jerusalem is a sharp and accurate reflection of the problems the State of Israel needs to deal with, especially at this time.
The key difference between the leadership of a city and the leadership of a country, or of governmental institutions, is their level of familiarity with the citizens’ real, everyday problems. Officials who work in national government offices only know what problems residents are facing by reading news headlines and reports, whereas municipality employees know the specific details of actual people’s plight.
CITIZENS DON’T turn to the government in order to share their story of hardship, to delineate the details of their suffering due to lack of employment and means to feed their families, or exposure to violent crime.
Instead, people almost always turn to their local municipality. The government is a concept, whereas the municipality is something tangible. It has a specific address, it knows the people it need to speak with, and who will listen to their complaints. Municipality employees are the people who are expected to respond to and solve their problems and offer solutions that can improve residents’ quality of life.
There’s hardly an area of our lives that a properly functioning municipality doesn’t know how to take care of and offer fair solutions, in a more efficient way than the national government can.
Although the rules and regulations of Israel’s educational system are set by the Education Ministry, it’s the local authorities who actually manage the schools and solve problems as they arise.
It’s the same thing regarding welfare services: The government offices know the subject matter, but only the municipalities know the actual people who need help. The social workers who interact daily with Israel’s citizens who suffer from poverty and everything that entails work for the local municipalities.
The same is true when it comes to sports, development and construction, employment, leisure and cultural activities; in short, everything that defines the quality of life of a city’s residents.
It’s the local municipalities that know how each of the various communities are structured and how they are different one from another. They know who the social activists are, and which non-profits are striving daily to offer assistance to residents in need. The municipalities are also physically located near where people live, which makes it easier for municipalities to know which people need assistance and to provide them with the appropriate help.
For all these reasons, the most natural next step would be to transfer the responsibility for handling the COVID-19 crisis over to local municipalities, and not to a national organization that might compete with the Health Ministry or the government COVID-19 commission. Each local municipality should be in charge of its own community.
Kfar Saba Mayor Rafi Saar has proven that he knows how to take care of his residents better than any national government could. Yeruham and its Mayor Tal Ohana have proven that they are considerably more efficient than all of the government’s experts. Yeruham didn’t become a green city as a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nightly performances. Tal Ohana did it on her own. A mayor is familiar with its residents’ needs and has experience talking to them at eye level and not through the lens of a TV camera.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the key to the efficient handling of the COVID-19 pandemic should be put in the hands of the mayors of Israel’s cities, since each city has its own unique needs and way of life. Some cities are more densely populated, and others require the implementation of unique methods to reach the hearts of its citizens in order to successfully reduce the spread of contagion.
Now that a third closure is upon us, and I can feel it approaching, I am calling upon Israel’s mayors to unite forces and demand in no uncertain terms that the government hand over control of the reins and enable each local authority to decide when the appropriate time will be to open its schools, shops, restaurants, cafés and cinemas.
If this method is implemented, it will soon become clear that each city knows what the right formula is for it to successfully manage the rate of contagion until a vaccine is found. In the meantime, the municipalities will know how to manage everything appropriately. The only downside to such a proposition is that Netanyahu won’t need to appear on TV each evening with his purple hair and piercing look so that he can tell us how he’s been teaching leaders worldwide how to defeat the virus. Except, now that I think about it, that might not actually be a downside after all.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.