Hot Air to Hot Stuff

Back to the Polls in Israel as Voters Wade through the Waffle

By David E. Kaplan

During an election campaign the air is full of speeches and vice versa,” said the American historian Henry Adams. A descendant from two former US presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams –  he should know!

This March, Israelis will be voting in another general election!

That will be FOUR in TWO years, that is more than the number of times I have been to movies over the same period!

Rather than an “all-star cast”, we have the “usual suspects”to determine our future. And as to the final ‘scene’, it will again be reminiscent of American tag wrestling where men clamber into the ring mouthing menacing threats before pulvarising anyone in their way and we call this ‘delightful’ process –  “coalition building”!

If it were a movie, how would one describe it : tragedy, drama or comedy?

Whatever; we are now subjected to our 4th season in this tragic, dramatic or comedic charade and hope – or pray – that we don’t have a 5th season soon. 

As for the rhetoric we can expect from our candidates seeking our ‘precious’ votes, I am reminded  of the words from Macbeth “ full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Walk On By. People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), alongside the Blue and White former party leaders, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 3, 2019.
(AP / Oded Balilty 2019 ©FILE)

 

Ins and Outs

With always additions to the ‘plot’ in the shape of new parties and personalities, voters always hope that ‘new kids on the block’ will survive into electoral adulthood. Last time serious aspirant for PM, Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party are now blue and black – not expected to make it into the next Knesset.

Adding his hat into the “ring” this time round is Tel Aviv mayor, Ron Huldai heading a new centre-left party called The Israelis and who may just spice up the race with a proven record of ‘getting the job done’.

Huldai promises to present a “clear alternative” to the ideologically disenfranchised Israelis who feel they have no home in the current political set up.

We will lift their chins and bring back their hope…. it is high time to present a clear alternative,” he said.

He has the talent, drive and is fueled by that increasingly rare attribute –  “values”.

Exasperated. The leader of Israel’s Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, saying he cannot form a coalition government, making a third election in a year more likely. Now were heading for a fourth!

Meeting the Mayor

I recall my interview with Huldai back in 2009 after he was elected for a consecutive third term of Mayor of Tel Aviv, the same year that marked 100 years since the establishment of Israel’s first, modern Hebrew-speaking city. He had reason to be proud.

Ten years ago,” he told me, “the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. We made a real turnaround. Apart from balancing our budget within six years, we trebled our spending on public works.”

It showed back then in 2009  as the image of “the city that never sleeps” was evident from shoreline to skyline.

He went on. If businesses and banks were once leaving the City, “These days they are tripping over each other as they scout for premises.

A decade later, Forbes in 2019, ranked Tel Aviv the 2nd best city in the world and in 2020 – for the third year in a row – Tel Aviv took in more new immigrants than any other Israeli city. Huldai had more than a hand in steering his city to its attractive status.

Shifting his Sights. Aspiring to national politics, Mayor Ron Huldai standing at Dizengoff Square in central Tel Aviv.

I recall that on the far wall opposite the Mayor’s desk in his office – overlooking Rabin Square – hung a large painting of a group of people standing on a desolate beach. The distance between the painting to Huldai’s desk was only five metres.  The distance in time between the subject of the panting and the mayor sitting in his chair was one hundred years. Noting my interest and pointing to the painting he said, “There – they are our first residents; our city founders, 60 families. They called their new town Ahuzat Bayit (“Housing Project”) and after a year renamed it Tel Aviv (“Spring Hill”).”

After a long ‘winter of discontent’ with Israeli politics, can we realistically hope for a Spring?

Change of Seasons

One could be excused for thinking that the “Big City” is in the Mayor’s blood.

It’s not!

Huldai was born and bred on kibbutz Hulda from which he takes his surname – Huldai. A former combat pilot, he was decorated for his exploits during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Prior to retiring after 26 years in the Israel Air Force with the rank of Brigadier General, he had been the commander of two of Israel’s largest Air Force bases. Tellingly, Huldai points out that “at only 51 square kilometres, in size, Tel Aviv is smaller than my old base and yet look what is packed into it. With over 1700 bars and pubs, thousands of restaurants, a new Waterfront at the old port, the nightlife is unbelievable. This place never shuts down. It’s a city on a treadmill.”

The metaphor may well apply to the Mayor, who now in 2021 aspires to entering national politics.  

Mayors on the Right Track. Then London mayor, Boris Johnson ( right) and Tel Aviv Ron Huldai (left) cycle down Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv. (Photo via Facebook)

Back to School

I recalled it illuminating Huldai relating about visiting a school that morning, before our interview, “to meet its new principal.” Schools are places where Huldai naturally feels at home. Following in the footsteps of his parents who were both educators, Huldai, after his military service, served as principal of Tel Aviv’s prestigious Gymnasia Herzliya, the first Hebrew speaking school in Israel. He continued, “After my meeting with the principal, I walked through the playground and joined a bunch of kids playing matkot (beach bats). I asked if I could join in?” and the next minute was showing them his lesser known talents. This is what Huldai clearly enjoys doing, connecting with his city’s citizens of all ages.

Time for Change. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (left) and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn at the announcement on Huldai’s new party, December 29, 2020.

Hanging Out

Intrigued as to where in Tel Aviv the Mayor likes to enjoy ‘time out’, he mentions  – apart from the beach – a well-known coffee bar.

“Any reason for this one?” I asked.

“Sure, its popular with the locals,” he replies.It’s like the Knesset. People are drinking coffee, eating pastry and discussing politics.  And not quietly either! Very noisy, just like the Knesset. It’s wonderful. It reminds me of Golda Meir’s observation, when she quipped – “I am the Prime Minister of a country of three million Prime Ministers.” Everyone in Israel is well informed and knows better how to run the place. It’s an opportunity for me to connect with people and tap into their thinking.”  

Of course, whenever he enters the place, he says, “the talk usually changes from national affairs to local issues and they have questions I’m expected to have the answers.

Hardly surprising.

Having “answers” to the concerns of people should be on the minds of all who seek office. Listing the values that his party will champion, Huldai includes:  

safeguarding democracy and the justice system, create socially-minded reforms, care for small businesses, promote women’s and minorities’ rights, and oppose religious coercion and rampant violence in the Arab community”.

Illuminating City. Tel Aviv municipality lit up for gay pride. Under Huldai’s mayorship, Tel Aviv has become one of the most popular holiday destinations for LGBTQ travelers, with the city home to a plethora of LGBTQ bars, gyms, beaches and hotels, as well the largest Pride parade in the Middle East and Asia.

Urging Israelis to vote for his party as a “home of values,” he  points to the values he said he has brought to Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a city now the envy of the world, where Jews and Arabs, Orthodox and secular, straights and LGBTQ live together “without hatred and fear.”

He has described Tel Aviv as “a lighthouse city – spreading the values of freedom, tolerance and democracy to the world.”

I for one wish him luck. I like the job he has done in Tel Aviv; may he now have an impact on the future of the nation. And for sure, Huldai can expect the patrons at his favourite coffee bar to have a lot more questions!




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

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