New Horizons for Ofakim

When he was younger, Zvika Greengold would occasionally do reserve duty at the Tze'elim army base. On his way there he would pass by Ofakim, but it never occurred to him to enter the town.

For nearly two months now, Greengold has been serving as Ofakim's appointed mayor, and he is constantly thinking about how to encourage people to take a four-kilometer detour off the main highway that connects Ashkelom, Sderot, Netivot and Be'er Sheva, and enter Ofakim.

During the Yom Kippur War, as an armored corps captain in the reserves, Greengold, now 58, managed almost single-handedly to deceive the Syrians into thinking that he was heading a large force, and blocked the advance of Syrian tanks for 36 hours along the oil pipeline in the Golan Heights. His fight, which he continued even after he was wounded, won him a citation for heroism and the nickname "Force Zvika."

Greengold, whose parents were among the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagheta'ot, was demobilized with the rank of colonel and turned to a career in business management and enterprise. Among other things, he was a founder of the Tivol factory at Lohamei Hagheta'ot. He came to Ofakim after a political adventure in the Galilee, where he lives in the community of Koranit in the Segev bloc.

"The Second Lebanon War appalled me. I saw a leadership that was impotent in face of the Katyushas, and felt that I had to help. Maybe if I were younger I would have gone back into the army. Instead, I decided to run for election," he relates. Greengold ran on the Kadima ticket for chairman of the Misgav regional council but only came in third, perhaps because he said that bringing Arab families into the Misgav communities would mean scrapping the Zionist project.

"At one point, after the Yom Kippur War, I thought it was necessary to achieve peace at any price," he says. "Today I understand that there will not be peace - there will be arrangements."

In his opinion, the nature of these arrangements depends on Israel's internal strength, which depends on firmly establishing Jewish hegemony in the Galilee and Negev, and educating the youth to the values of Zionism. "Combating corruption and the quality of the environment are important matters, but they cannot constitute the be-all and end-all," he says.

Fundamentally, Greengold is a man of the Ahdut Haavoda movement (a precursor of today's Labor Party). He views the endless debate over the territories as barren and superfluous. "In the end, after all, we will return territories, even if Bibi [Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu] is prime minister, because of international pressure. It is necessary to concentrate on building up the country within the borders of the consensus," he says.

He stresses that he is not a member of Kadima, but a few months ago he heard from an acquaintance about the Interior Ministry tender for mayor of Ofakim, entered his candidacy and won. In his mind's eye was Major General (res.) Amram Mitzna, who for three years now has been serving as the appointed mayor of Yeruham. This week he paid a visit to Mitzna in order to get advice. "Mitzna is my model. If he hadn't done what he did, I wouldn't be here today. He has done Zionism, and that is what I intend to do here. We have not yet finished building the state."

Some 26,000 people live in Ofakim, about 20 kilometers west of Be'er Sheva. About 30 percent are ultra-Orthodox, most of them newly observant, and another 30 percent are immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union. The rest are descendents of the founding generation, immigrants from North Africa and India who arrived in the town in the 1950s and 1960s. A small community of Ethiopians and an even smaller community of collaborators from the Gaza Strip who were resettled in the town complete the complex urban mosaic.

Nearly one-third of the inhabitants are supported by the welfare department and hundreds of families receive aid, including food, from non-profit organizations. Many of the inhabitants in their 50s and 60s have been dreaming of fleeing Ofakim since they were 20. When they retire, they leave.

Greengold identifies three major problems: the town's image, its inhabitants' self-image and the organizational culture of its institutions. "People here come to work or they don't come work," he says. "The moment the inhabitants label themselves as wretched, this is self-fulfilling."

Greengold inherited a cumulative budgetary deficit of nearly NIS 20 million, but resources for current use are not lacking, at least at this stage. An appointed council's mandate is for at least two years, of which more than one year has already passed. If he is given only one year in the position, he will not succeed in bringing about any change, he says. "The compass here has broken because of very wild and ugly local politics, and people have stopped understanding what is right. If they think that my horizon is limited, they will not want to go along with me because they will already be thinking about the next elections and the strategies they will have to pursue in order to ensure themselves a job or a position."

Ever since he arrived in Ofakim, he has been trying to navigate through the thicket of local intrigues and repel accusations of two inappropriate appointments.

Ofakim was established in the mid-1950s to serve as a regional center for the area's rural communities. Greengold is convinced that it could have become a desirable suburb of Be'er Sheva, rather than communities like Omer or Meitar, but missed that opportunity because of a lack of vision on the part of its leaders.

Ofakim has two natural advantages: It has no industry and therefore there is no air pollution, and the weather there is pleasant. Under the area's master construction plan, a train station is slated to open in Ofakim in 2010. A parking lot for 1,000 cars will be built adjacent to the station, and inhabitants of the region will park there and board the train to Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, or to Be'er Sheva. Greengold is hoping that on the way to and from the station passengers will stop in Ofakim for shopping or other errands. Recently he was contacted by an entrepreneur who wants to transform an abandoned industrial building at the entrance to the town into an art museum.

Greengold is hoping to attract thousands of families to the town, including Ofakim natives who have left, in order to serve as a counterweight to the distressed population that is already there. He says that he can offer them a good education system and plots for building low-rise homes at a cost of about NIS 100,000. In the Segev bloc a similar plot costs four times as much, he notes.

Although the high school matriculation rate in the town is only around 44 percent, and more established families send their children to kibbutz schools, Greengold says that if the ultra-Orthodox youngsters in the town, who don't take the matriculation exams, are excluded from the calculations, the rate rises to over 70 percent.

Ofakim has experienced many political reversals. There has hardly been a mayor who has served for more than one term consecutively. In August, 2006, the interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, decided to disperse the elected municipal council and depose the mayor, Avi Ashraf, after a review report found flaws in his conduct, including making appointments without proper tenders or in violation of Interior Ministry guidelines. In his place Sheetrit appointed Aryeh Azoulay, who in his distant past had been mayor of Ashdod. However, less than a year after he assumed the position, the 76-year-old Azoulay resigned on the grounds that he had to complete his doctoral thesis. It appears that both he and the Interior Ministry understood that the choice of him had been mistaken.

A short tour of Ofakim is enough in order to understand the dimensions of the challenge facing his replacement: abandoned lots in the town center with piles of garbage, empty public buildings with smashed windowpanes, broken sidewalks and streets bare of greenery. The municipal swimming pool is in desperate need of refurbishment. At the only basketball court there is no lighting, and the same holds for many streets. It is hard to get an answer from the 106 call center. Either nobody answers or the operator doesn't have a solution to offer. A clarification elicits that the call center is, in fact, located in Kiryat Gat.

On November 11, when most of the inhabitants of Israel will go to the polls, the inhabitants of Ofakim will stay home. Many of them will prefer the temporary loss of democracy to the administrative chaos they have known in recent years. Greengold is reassuring. In the next elections they will already be able to elect their leaders, he says. He intends to bring in experts from the outside to establish proper management and organizational methods at the municipality that will enable holders of key positions to arise from among the local population. "There have been too many failures here. I must succeed," he says.