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Tel Aviv's New Politics

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Michal Barzel-Cohen sits cross-legged on a slab of cracked concrete near Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. Barzel-Cohen, an artist and practitioner of alternative medicine, waves an arm toward the surrounding empty lot, known as “Kiryat Sefer.”

“This is the last remaining piece of empty, publicly-owned land in the city center,” she says, “and, as such, the last chance we have to build a park for the residents here.” For over a decade, Barzel-Cohen has led a stubborn campaign to preserve the 26-dunam site as an open area.

Since beginning their struggle in 1997, Barzel-Cohen and her neighbors have tried almost everything in their attempt to win City Hall’s support for the park: organizing countless events, setting up art exhibitions, even producing a movie.

City officials responded with a series of building plans for the area. Some of the plans set aside a portion of the lot for the park, but the neighbors insisted on a park that would occupy the entire site. A couple of years ago, the land was leased out to an entrepreneur, who decided to operate a parking lot on the site.

Last month, however, something unexpected happened: the residents won. In an unprecedented move, a municipal planning committee voted unanimously to recommend transforming the entire area into a park, while transferring construction rights to another site.

Michal Barzel-Cohen, for her part, says she was not surprised by the vote. She has faith in people, she says, including elected officials. And, all along, the residents have enjoyed the dedicated support of a handful of local politicians, including Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi of Meretz.

However, she adds, there was another factor that contributed to the residents’ victory: the emergence of a new political actor on the local stage called City for All, swept into the city council six months ago by a groundswell of public support.

Although Barzel-Cohen herself is not affiliated with City for All, the movement has been among the park’s most adamant supporters, and was instrumental in harnessing the grassroots pressure that led to the park’s approval. Says Barzel-Cohen: “City for All has changed the public discourse in this city.”

FOUNDED IN EARLY 2008, City for All (Ir Likulanu) was, from the very beginning, an unusual animal in the landscape of Israeli politics. Unaffiliated with national-level political parties and composed of a loose coalition of activist groups and residents from the left, right and center of the political map, the new movement emerged out of widespread disappointment with Mayor Ron Huldai’s policies and governing style.

In August of 2008, City for All announced that Dov Khenin, a prominent environmentalist and human rights advocate, would head its list. Khenin, a member of the left-wing, Jewish-Arab communist party Hadash, had earned respect in the Knesset, but his radical politics threatened to alienate voters not identified with the Left.

The movement launched a marketing campaign that utilized, among other things, word-of-mouth and online social networks to build support. Despite the almost underground nature of the campaign, City for All’s strategy seemed to work.

Practically overnight, Dov Khenin became something of a cult figure, and his animated portrait became an iconic image in the city.
The media also began to take notice, artists and bloggers jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon and local celebrities lent the campaign their fame. Increasingly, City for All emerged as a serious challenge to Huldai’s leadership.

On election night, with tension running high, the results of the vote became clear only during the early morning hours: Ron Huldai, with just over half the vote, was on his way to a third term as mayor.

Huldai’s party, Tel Aviv 1, had won five seats on the city council. In the city’s more well-off neighborhoods, Huldai and Tel Aviv 1 had won in almost every polling station. Khenin, with just over a third of the vote, had lost his bid for the mayor’s seat.

City for All, however, had emerged as the largest party on the city council, also with five seats. And in the young, liberal city center, Khenin and City for All were overwhelmingly victorious.

In the aftermath of the election, Ron Huldai set about putting together his coalition. When the dust settled, City for All’s five city councilors found themselves alone outside the coalition, with one other faction, Yaffa, still undecided.
City for All had stolen the limelight, but was now headed for the opposition. For the young movement, it was a euphoric but bittersweet victory.

Could a determined opposition party, they wondered, really help shape municipal policy, especially under a mayor as strong as Huldai? Half a year later, this remains to a large extent an open question.

“ONE WAY TO UNDERSTAND the results of the election,” says Professor Avner de-Shalit of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “is that voters were sending a message to Huldai that they wanted something different.”

In his previous two terms as mayor, Ron Huldai, a former Air Force commander, had never faced any serious challenges to his rule. Now, he would have to answer to a large and determined opposition, eager to challenge his worldview.

“In other cities around the world, mayors are thinking ahead,” Sharon Shahaf, City for All’s outspoken young spokesperson, told Metro after the local election. “In many places, they are beginning to address issues like climate change and urban sustainability at the local level.

“In Israel, a mayor is still judged based on his ability to provide pretty landscaping, traffic circles and a working sewage system. We are trying to raise peoples’ awareness, along with their expectations of their local government.”

Professor de-Shalit compares City for All’s positions to those of the “Green Parties” in Europe. “This is a party with a clearly formulated agenda and a very anti-establishment attitude,” he says.

Part of City for All’s appeal comes from its attempts to integrate a broad spectrum of people into its decision-making processes. Early on, the movement set up a series of “forums,” small groups of committed citizen activists, organized around neighborhood boundaries and specific issues. The groups, which would become the backbone of the movement, were given the task of formulating the movement’s policies on issues such as housing, transportation and education.

“City for All’s democratic structure and the enthusiasm of its supporters are refreshing and almost unheard of in local politics in Israel,” says de-Shalit.

IN LOCAL politics in Israel, the winner generally takes all. Parties that choose not to join an elected mayor’s coalition are left out in the cold, denied access to powerful positions and influence over local affairs.

But City for All was not discouraged. They pointed to Khenin’s success in the Knesset as a model: though never a member of the government, the MK had managed to pass an impressive amount of environmental legislation by identifying like-minded lawmakers and building coalitions around specific issues.

City for All was hopeful that it could operate this way as well, building coalitions with other council members around specific areas of consensus even if they contradicted Huldai’s policies. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and criticizing, City for All was determined to be a proactive opposition, taking the initiative and using the tools at their disposal to influence policy.

However, the movement’s representatives soon realized that being an active opposition in Tel Aviv was not going to be easy. Huldai remains a strong and talented mayor, supported by much of the country’s political establishment, while City for All is underfunded and barely known outside of Tel Aviv.

Worse still, the other parties on the council, with which City for All had hoped to cooperate, have treated the movement with extreme caution. It seems no one wants to appear too close to such a vocal opposition, lest their loyalty to the coalition be called into question.

The initial frustration with the reality of municipal decision-making has forced the young movement to think more creatively about how to exercise its power.

“We are a young movement, and are still developing,” says Shahaf. “After focusing on gathering support before the election, we have spent the last several months learning how to be an effective opposition.”

Shahaf admits that bad blood existed between her party and others immediately after the elections, even with parties holding similar worldviews, such as Meretz and the Green Party. However, these days, she says, the movement is rebuilding its ties with other factions, and remains committed to building coalitions around specific issues.

Lately, that strategy has begun to bear fruit, and cooperation has started to develop. City for All recently partnered up with the Likud to secure a six-month moratorium on home demolitions in Kfar Shalem, a key success for the movement.
The movement’s members have also been able to realize their power in the various municipal committees.

Rachelle Gilad-Volner, a social worker who has been involved in local activism for 25 years, is City for All’s representative on the Local Committee for Planning and Construction.

“Our presence on the committee makes a real difference,” she says. “Today, decisions on things like building new skyscrapers and highways, which until recently would have easily gained approval, are no longer approved automatically.”

On other important fronts, however, the movement has yet to make a substantial impact. Affordable housing for students, young people and lower-income families, for example, is a primary issue for the movement and its supporters. It has also been declared a priority by Mayor Huldai, who even commissioned a plan to create affordable housing from a specially-appointed team over a year ago.

Despite this apparent confluence of interests, concrete attempts to create affordable housing units have yet to be approved, and City for All representative Yoav Goldring’s recent suggestion to include funding for affordable housing in the city’s new annual budget was rejected. Despite some sixty reservations submitted by City for All, the new budget was approved by the city council, with the support of all of the coalition parties.

Dan Rabinowitz, an anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University and one of the movements’ founders, is frank about his disappointment: “The first few months in opposition have exposed the weakness of the structures now in place in local government in Israel,” he says. “Mayors recruit the council’s support by appointing leaders of the various parties as paid deputies and other office holders and have no obligations towards their opposition.”

WHILE CITY FOR ALL has found life in the opposition frustrating at times, a subtle shift has nevertheless become evident in municipal policy. On a number of fronts, City Hall has exhibited a measure of flexibility recently that was absent during the past decade.

City council meetings, for example, are now recorded and posted on the municipality’s website. Whether a response to City for All’s announcement that it would begin videotaping council meetings or an independent decision by the municipality, the move represents a step toward greater transparency in local politics.

Municipal officials have also begun to display greater awareness of environmental issues of late. Last month, the municipality organized an international conference on urban sustainability and environmental planning for the city’s future.

This week, in another first, Mayor Huldai met with a number of local environmental organizations and activists in an attempt to stimulate a dialogue about green issues in the city. In his ten years of running the city, Huldai had never before attended such an encounter, and his relations with local green groups have been often been strained.

City for All remains skeptical about the change in the mayor’s tone. “I think that, because of our presence, we are seeing the municipality do things that they wouldn’t do without City for All,” says council member Yoav Goldring. “They are beginning to answer our demands, while making sure that we don’t get the credit.”

WHILE City for All emerges from its first few months in the opposition, the extent to which it can influence the city’s politics from the opposition is still unclear.

In Professor de-Shalit’s opinion, it is still early to draw conclusions about City for All. While it has already successfully changed the way people talk about the issues on the agenda in Tel Aviv, he says, the real test of the young movement will come when it is either elected or decides to join a coalition.

However, says de-Shalit, if the movement stays true to its path and manages to convince the public that it represents a real alternative, its fortunes may change. There is also a precedent for this: Jerusalem’s new mayor Nir Barkat lost in his first bid for mayor five years ago, but transformed himself into the leader of an active and aggressive opposition, and eventually emerged victorious.

Until then, City for All remains determined to find common ground with other municipal factions. “It is and will remain an uphill climb,” admits Rabinowitz. “But we are here to stay and make a difference.”

BACK IN Kiryat Sefer, Michal Barzel-Cohen and her fellow neighborhood activists are cautiously optimistic. Following the decision in favor of the park, a number of official statements have come out in the press implying that the decision might still be overturned.

In the meantime, the residents have no intention of abandoning their campaign for the park. They have planted the beginnings of an organic garden, and continue to hold weekly picnics at the site.

“Public participation is the most important thing today,” says Michal Barzel-Cohen. “The residents have to be included in the processes that are changing the city.” As to the future of the park, Barzel-Cohen remains confident: “The city realizes now that the residents have great power.”

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post as "Grassroots Take Hold in City Hall."




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