This used to be a dirty Middle Eastern town, now it’s a built-up modern city in the center of Israel. To illustrate the point: In the late eighties, the southern industrial zone consisted of the Teva plant in the north end, the beer factory in the south end, a schwarma place, a kiosk and a dirt road. Today, it is a hyper-modern commercial area abounding with shopping malls, furniture stores, clothing outlets, restaurants, bars, hi-tech firms, heavy industry plants, municipality offices and its own train station. Back in the old days, when you drove north on the coastal road you knew you were approaching Netanya’s southern entrance when you saw a row of villas. The villas are still there, but they are dwarfed now by hi-risers that you can see from the highway after you pass Wingate. And in those pre-modern times, there was nothing but a lonely beach road connecting the outskirts with the center of town. Today, that road is graced with luxury apartment buildings, a tennis center and a planetarium, and a more recently built parallel road boasts residence hotels, stylish villas and a beach promenade atop the cliff that affords some of the best scenic views in Israel.
Put all this progress into perspective, and the expression “give the mayor credit” is bound to creep into the conversation, in spite the dark corruption charges hanging over the mayor. In Netanya, that is one bone of contention that is hard to swallow, especially today, a day after our infamous and longstanding Mayor Miriam Feirberg got reelected for yet another term in office.
Miriam Feirberg is not the shame of Netanya. The real shame is that so many voters who are aware of her status as a criminal suspect keep voting for her. I choose the word “suspect” with all due respect for the democratic principle that one is “innocent until proven guilty,” but also with the sense that if one is under suspicion for many years that person is probably guilty as hell. Back in the early 2000s I asked a Netanya resident what she thought about our shady mayor and her crooked dealings, and the answer she gave me is the most typical response that local voters have to offer: “Feirberg is corrupt as hell, but she gets the job done!”
Lest we forget, things started changing for the better in Netanya before Feirberg first became mayor in 1998. Her predecessor, Zvi Poleg, laid the groundwork for infrastructure and construction development in the southern industrial zone as well as that part of town that would later grow into the upscale Ir Yamim. Feirberg built on those solid foundations. The difference is that Poleg did good things for this town without ruining his good name.
Feirberg’s track record as a criminal suspect long predates the police investigations of her activities. When her transgressions were just becoming common knowledge by word of mouth, the locals were saying that for every building permit she gave to a contractor she or a family member got a considerable kickback. These rumors would later translate into police accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the most common terms ascribed to high-ranking Israeli politicians in recent years, both in the municipalities and the national government.
In Feirberg’s case, she was investigated by the police, who recommended indicting her for the aforementioned crimes. She was subsequently imprisoned for a short term, confined to house arrest, suspended from the Municipality, then allowed to go back to work and resume her duties as mayor – and yesterday she got herself reelected. With attitudes like: “she gets the job done” it’s not hard to connect the dots.
This outlook of a mostly morally bankrupt electorate is the real shame of Netanya. Miriam Feirberg is just an embarrassment that won’t go away.
Netanya doesn’t need a sleazy mayor to “bring home the bacon.” This town has economic potential in its very DNA, its gorgeous beachfront, its proximity to Tel Aviv, its affordable housing alternative to an increasingly gentrified Tel Aviv, its growing appeal to French immigrants and the availability of vast plots of still undeveloped real estate. Netanya is the fastest growing city in Israel, not thanks to Feirberg or any one politician.
But with all its growth and development Netanya still has a dire need for better schools, day care, social intervention and urban renewal in parts of town that remain poverty stricken. Feirberg is not very proactive in these areas. There is also the matter of religious-secular tension which Feirberg, in true Likud party fashion, is more interested in exploiting than resolving. All this shows why yesterday’s elections were so important. There are some good people in the opposition, like Ephraim Bolmash (Labor) and Tali Molner (Pe’ima Hadasha) who can hopefully set things in motion with the aim to introduce what’s really missing in this town: a non-coercive religious-secular agreement and social equality.