Former Haifa Mayor, Yona Yahav, and Reflections on Political Vision
Yona Yahav is a man of vision. In 1956, as a twelve-year-old boy, he envisioned himself Mayor of Haifa. Everything he did from that point on was with that goal in mind. And he was not an idle dreamer – he worked out what he had to know, not just to get to be mayor, but how to be the best city administrator he could be once seated in the mayor’s office.
Soon after Yahav was defeated in the latest municipal elections, the government called for national elections for April. Suddenly the country was thrown into pre-elections frame of mind, about six months earlier than the formal end of the current term. I wondered what Yahav could tell voters about the role of vision in national politics.
Yona Yahav made himself an expert well before he even got to the mayor’s office. He studied law, then became a student leader. It is quite common for future politicians to seek roles in student government and Yahav went this route as well. But he took this one step further and after completing his degree in Israel, he went to London to continue his studies; but most interestingly, he became secretary-general of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), a role that would improve his English, gain him international contacts and international diplomacy experience, and an understanding of Diaspora Jewish life. Beginning at the age of 24, he would take photographs in the various cities to which he travelled, photographs that exemplified municipal features he would like to see applied in Haifa. By the time he was voted in as mayor, he had a substantial collection of photographs and the kernel of a vision for the city he loves so much.
And his “education” was not over in London. As spokesperson to Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek, for example, and then parliamentary aide to Transport Minister Gad Yaakobi, he filled in gaps in his knowledge necessary for running a city the size of Haifa with a train terminal and a bustling harbor handling cargo and passenger ships and a downtown decaying from neglect.
In 1978, Yahav was elected to the Haifa City Council. It is an unpaid position and he maintained his legal practice at the same time. Wanting to see Haifa become a center for culture, he raised the idea of initiating a film festival. His fellow council members mocked him and he was denied the US$40,000 required to make it happen. Not willing to give up this idea, he thought of an unconventional source for the funds he needed. As an arbitrator in a case between a large concern and a falafel stand, Yahav saw how much profit there can be in falafel so he approached proprietors of falafel stands in Hadar and invited them to play a role in developing the cultural life of Haifa to the tune of US$1000 each. Thus, the Sukkot Haifa Film Festival was born.
His stubborn determination and unwillingness to let anything block his way stood him in good stead when he became mayor and had the power to work toward the realization of his vision of Haifa as a future cultural and tourist center, as a city with low unemployment and high standards of education: the “Barcelona” of the Middle East. He claims that he only needed one more term of office to fully achieve his goals and voters did not give him that one last term, but let us look one particular aspect of his vision for Haifa and from there extrapolate to the national domain in order to understand how to assess our national leaders — and those aspiring to be elected in April 2019 – with respect to vision.
In 2003, when he became Haifa’s mayor, unemployment was at 12%. He needed to bring job opportunities to the city and he worked hard to entice high-tech firms to relocate to what is now the impressive MATAM High-Tech Industrial Park employing 10,000 workers. Unemployment today is down to 4% in Haifa.
Yahav was, however, unsuccessful in turning Haifa into a finance and media center. Being a transportation hub and the site of two successful institutes of higher education, the University of Haifa and the Technion, Haifa should be a natural home for branches of the major media outlets and production companies as well as a center for commerce and banking. Instead, these are all located in the center of the country and Yahav sees this as a problem.
The national government is responsible for the economic stability of the country, for international relations and for security issues. Yahav says that all of these realms are inter-related and, while he acknowledges Prime Minister Netanyahu’s success in keeping Israel afloat during the last global economic crisis, perhaps like Noah in his Ark, and for having forged a wider range of friendly and important international connections than previously believed possible, vision is still lacking with regard to security and relationships with our direct neighbors, the Palestinian Arabs.
Part of our security as a Jewish state depends on the health of our society. And our society includes those in the Galilee and Negev as well as those in the center and Jerusalem. If young people, unable to find work in their home towns, need to move to the center of the country for employment, then life in Israel’s periphery is abandoned. This does not bode well for our future. It is, in fact, a security issue.
The fact that Yahav was unsuccessful in his attempts to gain the support of the Knesset for making Haifa a commerce and banking center shows lack of vision on the part of national leaders. He notes how they talk a lot about strengthening the periphery (meaning the Galilee and the Negev), but the opportunity to actually do something significant to bring about the required change was passed up when Yahav had the foresight to request it.
What Does Having Vision Look Like?
Leaders with vision have a holistic view of the region over which they preside, whether that is a city or the entire country. They see the region’s resources, strengths and weaknesses within contexts of time and space. The general population does not have access to the overall picture because there may be things the leader cannot share publicly or that do not make sense to many people. This means that sometimes it appears that the leader is acting rashly, chaotically, or illogically. It is only after sufficient pieces of the puzzle fall into place that the overall picture becomes clear to citizens.
For this reason, perhaps, Yona Yahav was mocked when he set about reviving the neglected downtown area of Haifa, bringing the University of Haifa continuing education programs to what became the Harbor Campus. But once the campus was running, new restaurants and bars had opened up, students made downtown their home, and street festivals of various kinds became common there, Yahav said that it finally made sense to those who were initially afraid of bringing young people to what had been known for decades as a center for prostitution and drugs and alcohol.
Similarly, he had to fight those who opposed building the new stadium, others who opposed closing down the ammonia tank, and more. It takes a visionary to fight like Yahav did. In the end, others were impressed with his accomplishments — the stadium won two international prizes and the downtown renewal project was identified in 2018 as the seventh most important urban project in the world.
We can also see how a leader’s vision can elude the general population when we consider recent experience with the violent Gaza demonstrations and attempts to infiltrate our borders; many questioned our national government’s ability to take care of citizens under attack in the periphery. Netanyahu had to withstand ever-mounting pressure to more decisively deal with Hamas in Gaza. Political analysts explained that his reticence was because he was worried about war with Hezbollah in the north and did not want to spread our security forces too thin. It was not a satisfying answer. And they were only partly correct.
Once we found out that Netanyahu and the IDF had been working on a plan for destroying terrorist tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israeli territory, he was vindicated. Nothing about that operation leaked until he was ready to openly declare it. Then, we were witness to his tactical skills in waiting until substantial resources had been invested in building the tunnels before we demolished them and hurt Hezbollah (and Iran) much more than an earlier neutralization of the tunnels would have done. We still do not know why he could not have taken better care of communities near the Gaza border at the same time, but he gained our trust – for the moment, at least.
However, it is insufficient to have vision regarding how to manage border hostilities, wage war, and maintain the neighborhood status quo.
There must be vision for a healthy future. That includes having a blueprint for the entire map of Israel, with plans for bringing culture and employment to those who live in farther reaches of the country. Vitality in Carmiel and Naharia and Kiryat Gat, vitality in the rural agricultural communities, are no less important than vitality in Tel Aviv. And it is the job of our national leaders to see the country in its entirety and to devise a strategy for cooperation and teamwork among the various localities and relevant branches of national government to make that vision come true.
And Now Come New Elections
In Israel, voters cast their ballots on the basis of past performance more than on vision for the future. That can, in part, explain the Israeli penchant for voting for new parties set up by IDF generals just entering politics even though they have little to no experience in determining policy nor in areas not related to their military backgrounds, successful as they may have been in the latter. Israeli voters also cast their ballots for those who promise that they know how to protect our security interests, leftists believing that the Two-State-Solution will bring peace and security and right wingers believing that the Two-State-Solution will repeat the outcome of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But nobody, on either side of the political spectrum, present voters with details of how they would actually apply their ideas for the achievement of peace and security, nor what would be the risks and benefits of various scenarios. In other words, they talk in clichés that may sound catchy and inspiring but which leave you uninformed.
Vague promises are made during election campaigns, for example, pledging to improve economic conditions for the lower and middle classes. But clear programs are rarely put on the table during campaigns, nor ideas for improvement should the plans prove insufficient. The electorate is left to vote for what may prove to be empty promises rather than clear vision and a determination to resolve pressing problems.
Voters have several opportunities to put pressure on those soliciting our votes and to even change the election campaign environment in the future. We are all familiar with campaigns that invest much in criticizing and insulting other parties and party leaders. We should not accept that anymore. Election campaigns should be a time for our leaders to share their visions with the electorate. To give us credit for being able to weigh different issues intelligently.
But they will not give us credit until we demand it. And we demand it by taking responsibility. We demand it by going to parlor “meet-the-candidate” meetings and to Shabbat and evening interview programs in local community centers.
Yona Yahav suggests that we (and journalists) ask pointed questions: what do you intend to do about X? And if they say they have a plan, to request they share it with the audience as clearly and thoroughly as possible. And to ask what the projected outcome will be, and what they will do to avoid negative consequences. We will get our leaders to be accountable to us only if we demand accountability.
While Yahav did not get the fourth term he needed to make sure his vision gelled, it is clear he had a vision for Haifa. We should demand no less from our national leadership.
This article was first published in The Jerusalem Post.