Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

Few positions have more job security than mayor of a major city in Israel. But why is that?

This is a segment from The “Local Yokels” Edition.


So Allison, being a mayor here is most kind of like being a monarch.

Why is that? – Yeah, it’s a nice job.

Well, listen, guys, if you’re a young listener to the podcast, trying to figure out what to do in life, what kind of a job to aspire for, what you really want maybe is job security.

So there are two options.

Number one, be a college professor, get tenure.

And then, look at Noah sitting in front of me.

You can just drink coffee, surf the internet all day, decide to host a podcast where you can monologue to your heart’s content, and no one can do a damn thing about it. – I got tenure. – So the other option is being the mayor of a major city in Israel.

That’s a little less secure than tenure, but only a little bit.

To illustrate, consider what happened at the ballot this week in the 10 biggest cities in the country.

The percentages might change a little bit when the votes of the soldiers are counted as we record today, but probably not a lot.

In Jerusalem, Moshe Leon was reelected mayor with 81.5% of the vote.

In Tel Aviv, Ron Holdaie was elected to his sixth five-year term.

I don’t do math well, but that’s what, 30 years as mayor? – By the time he’s done, it’ll be 30 years. – Yeah.

In Haifa, an outlier, the sitting mayor, Einat Kelesh Rotem, was beaten by a former three-term mayor, Yona Yahav, who got 36.3% of the vote in a field of 12, count ’em, 12 mayoral candidates.

In Rishon Lezion, Raz Kinslish was reelected with 92.1% of the vote.

In Petach Tikva, Rami Greenberg was reelected with 86.9% of the vote.

In Ashdod, Yechiel Lastri was reelected to his fourth term in a field of five candidates, drawing 48.2% of the vote.

In Netanya, Miriam Feyerberg, the only woman among the mayors of the 10 biggest cities in Israel, was reelected to her sixth term with 43.4% of the vote in a field of five.

In Bnei Brak, former mayor, Chanuch Zybart, returned to office after the sitting mayor, Avram Rubenstein, retired.

I guess if you have the job and lose it, so you could get it back, so that’s another layer of security.

In Be’er Sheva, Rubik Danilovich was reelected to his fourth term with 96.6% of the vote, oh my God. – That’s Saddam Hussein territory. – And finally, in Holon, in the shock of the election, sixth term mayor, Moritz Hasson, was beaten, oh my God, by the head of the opposition on the city council, Shai Kanan.

So if you add it up, that means in Israel’s top 10 cities, only two mayors were voted out of office, and one of these by a guy who had already served as mayor for 15 years before that, which raises, I think, this interesting question.

We Israelis are mostly famously very, very critical of our politicians.

Now, it’s true that Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for a really, really, really long time, although much less than mayor of Tel Aviv, Arnold Hoda’i.

This is at least partially an artifact of a parliamentary system that makes it almost impossible for voters to dislodge a politician who has a firm grip on his party’s leadership, and boy, does Bibi have a firm grip.

In each of the three times that there were direct elections for prime minister, a different candidate won, tossing the guy who came out before on his ear.

Benjamin Netanyahu defenestrating Shimon Peres in 1996, Ehud Barak evicting Netanyahu in 1999, and Ariel Sharon kicking out Barak in 2001.

Elections for mayor are direct elections, so there goes the question, why do most of us in most places repeatedly re-elect the guy and in a few rare cases, the women we elected the last time, or worst case, the time before?

Miriam, you got an answer? – I’ve got a definitive one.

I do think the first biggest answer is term limits.

We don’t have term limits.

Jews like us from America tend to come from large cities where term limits are actually mostly in place, so we’re not used to this.

I think one reason is that being the mayor is just a terrible job. – Really?

It’s the best job in the world. – I just think it must be so, exactly what you talk about, where you have to really, you can talk however you talk, but you have to have your fingers in so many, many, many different things, and I suspect that that expertise is something that new blood would have a lot of trouble doing, it’s, I guess, a little speculative.

I see your face now. – ‘Cause I really think it’s the best job in the world. – Yeah, well, you also think voting is something that everyone, you can’t understand why not everyone would. – It’s so fun.

(Miriam laughs) – I think, I mean, I do think there’s a cult of personality around a position like mayor.

I don’t know if that’s unique to Israel.

Mayors have the opportunity to sort of quickly, the example that comes to mind besides park benches, you always know it’s an election year in a town like Geva Taim, which at least used to be skew older, when suddenly a bench would appear, and you’re like, oh, yeah, okay, that’s it, because it’s an easy way to make a statement about your worth as, you know, on a hot day when you’re sitting there and somebody gives you some shade.

That’s easy, I think, in Tel Aviv with Ron Cholda’i, renaming Kaplan Democracy Square, is it called? – Yeah, the intersection. – The intersection between Begin and where the demonstrations are is a kind of easy signaling, even though so much of what he’s doing is, you know, long-term planning and behind the scenes and pissing people off because of the construction that’s going on.

You have opportunity to be sort of a hero, but I want to hear what you have to say, Noah. – About why we keep re-electing our mayors.

I think because we’re just really happy in general with the way that our lives are.

I mean, we always, every year, have that poll where Israelis end up being, like, surprisingly happy on the world stage, the fourth most happy people in the world, or the third, or the most happy people in the world just beneath, I don’t know, Denmark or something.

And I think that that’s true, and one way you can express that is just by being more or less satisfied with the way that your cities look.

And there’s something inherent about city government that is pleasing, where it’s just like, there are people who wake up every morning, and their job is to figure out how to make your life better.

And sometimes it leads people to be really, really angry because they’re doing something that makes you, that seems to be making the city worse.

But mostly, like you were saying, there are so many things that you can do to make the city better, and in general in Israel, like, since the very beginning, the cities have only been getting better, and better, and better, looking at practically every single one, even the, like– – It started with the bar really low, by the way. – Absolutely, but that’s part of it.

Like, there are people who remember, like, if you live in Yerucham, or you live in even in Tel Aviv, then like you remember a time when this wasn’t here, and that wasn’t there, and this park wasn’t there, and this wasn’t so nice, and the port used to look like a shithole, and now look how beautiful it is.

And so I think that, like, I think it’s as simple as the fact that more or less, for the most part, cities mostly seem to be nice places to live in Israel for most people who vote.

There are a lot of people who, you know, whose experience in life is a lot harsher than, and they tend not to vote, and so voters vote for the people who are making their lives good. – Okay, to put a little bit of cynicism on his sunny day. – I’m shocked, Allison, you? – Yeah, that’s my job here.

I mean, also, you know, the mayor, the sitting mayor, has all kinds of tools to design, you know, the continuation of their reign by arranging things, you know, that favor them in the elections, you know, where election signs go, where rallies can be, you know, you kind of- – The timing of when projects come to fruition. – Exactly, the timing of when- – Although in Tel Aviv, that’s turned out to be difficult, but that can also, I always think about, all of a sudden, everything got finished somehow a month before elections. – Right, and also, like, we can’t neglect the fact that there is a history of, like, hardcore corruption in local government in Israel. – Including convicted felons who have been reelected, actually, in a number of places. – Well, Ehud Olmert, which, you know, advertising alert, I interviewed this week on the Haaretz podcast. – Oh, I can’t wait to hear that. – What got him into trouble was the stuff that he did when he was mayor of Jerusalem, you know, long before he was prime minister. – So, almost all has to do with development, and I don’t want to be misunderstood.

I think that almost every mayor in the country could be doing a much, much better job.

Like, basically, I think the priorities in Tel Aviv and the priorities in every city that I know anything about are not quite right, where, like, there’s, I think that wealthy people are always preferred.

I think that the city gets better for the people who it’s already good for, for the most part.

I think there are all sorts of problems.

But to the narrow question of why people are, the people who vote are satisfied, it’s because, even what you were saying, Allison, it’s true that mayors do some of the things that they do because they know that it will keep them in office, but what they have to do is make people happy.

That’s like, ultimately, I mean, they’re not manipulating.

They’re not going out, for the most part, they’re not going out and bribing people and they’re not breaking the legs of people who are not gonna vote for them. – With a possible exception, sorry, ’cause I’m gonna sound like I’m bashing ultra-Orthodox, but where people pretty much follow marching orders of who to vote for, if you get the right people to tell their people to vote for you, that’s what you can do. – That is the, I think, greatest, never-tested myth about ultra-Orthodox people, that they just follow orders.

I have seen no evidence for that.

No one, it just seems obvious ’cause they all dress in black, that they’re all gonna do exactly what the rabbi says. – I think it’s obvious because they vote in unblock.

I mean, isn’t that like– – I think that they do not vote unblock.

If you look at what’s happening in Beit Shemesh now or what happened in Eilat– – Oh yeah, there are splits because there are divisions, but all of the Litvaks vote for the Litvaks. – First of all, I don’t know if that’s entirely true.

And second of all, the splits matter.

And third of all, that’s just like all the secular people in Tel Aviv vote for secular people. – Actually, we will see a very interesting example or drama around that with Beit Shemesh because of the re-vote that’s gonna happen.

That was a three-way split.

You need to get 40%.

Elisa Bloch didn’t meet that.

It went quite close between the three.

One was Shas, one was– – She was not in first place.

She came in second place, I think. – So now there’s a bake-off coming, I think, March, a couple, in a couple of weeks.

March 9th. – I just got a note from a friend in Beit Shemesh pointing out to me maybe I wanna write about is the fact that she’s at a disadvantage ’cause she can’t put signs up all over the place with her face on them. – So it’d be really interesting to see if Shas just completely falls in line behind Yadut HaTorah.

Is that the split there or whether they split?

‘Cause Shas is always the interesting haredi party. – So anyway, Allison, what you say might be true, but I have this impression that all of everything that we think of as a virtue in ourselves, we see something similar in the ultra-Orthodox, and it seems like a terrible vice.

Like, oh my God, look at all the charity things that they have.

It’s like they don’t even need to work because they have people giving them things, as opposed to, and also I think the fact that their percentage of voting is some degree, some percentage higher than secular, not that much, but maybe about 15% higher than secular.

It’s people like, oh, they’re not real.

They’re not actually thinking individuals.

They just follow lockstep what their rabbi tells them.

But then every ultra-Orthodox person I’ve ever spoken to has not sounded like that.

I’ve yet to meet the person who says, oh yeah, I cast my vote for what the rabbi tells me.

There are some people who say, I always vote Gimel because my parents voted Gimel.

I’m always gonna vote Gimel. – There are some people who say that about every party, or every older party. – They sound more like human beings than like a tomato when you actually talk to them about politics, I think. – Yep, I mean, but the proof is in the ballot box.

I don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

I mean, when I don’t know who to vote for, I didn’t know who to vote for for Mayor Ranana, so I asked people I knew and respected who they thought I should vote for, and they said this guy, and even though I knew nothing about this guy, I voted for them.

So, if you respect your rabbi and your rabbi tells you to vote for someone, I’m not bashing doing that necessarily, but the corruption thing is big.

I mean, we had a spate, right, of like really, really, really corrupt mayors. – Almost always about development, and I have a feeling that that’s still going on too. – Right, but the goal of the development was not to put money in their pocket, was that to quote unquote make people happy so that they would reelect them.

It’s kind of all mixed up together. – That’s true, that’s absolutely, no, I have nothing good to say about the corruption, though, I mean, there’s good reason to believe that it’s less rampant, it’s less possible now that there’s more vigilance about it, but even that, like old machine politics that was corrupt, and you know, like we know from the United States, and I’m sure existed everywhere, at some point, it had to make people happy.

At some point, it had to give them the chicken in every pot, and even in the places that were most corrupt, like Cologne was famously very corrupt.

It was a happening city while it was also a corrupt city, in part because the mayor, who had this whole machine going, knew that he had to make the people feel as though the city was going in the right direction. – Yep, there is a famous story in Ronano where we had a legendary mayor for decades, Zev Bielski, who everyone loved, and he sort of was a pioneer in what we’re talking about now about using the mayorship to make yourself more popular, to become more popular, and da-da-da, and that if you called to complain that the garbage wasn’t taken out, you’d call the area and say, “No one’s taken out your garbage,” da-da-da, and he would keep you on the phone chatting, the mayor would keep you on the phone, talking about da-da-da-da-da-da, look out your window while you were on the phone with him, like it was happening, yeah. – That’s good mayoring right there.

I mean, it’s weird and it’s not so meaningful.

It doesn’t really make people’s lives that much better, but that’s good mayoring. – But I remember 20-odd years ago when I moved to Ronano, that was like such a huge thing, like that could happen in Ronano ’cause our city was the best and it was the best run place.

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