Arad Believes in Itself, Not in Politicians

It is the end of the day, and Salon Bella in the Arad commercial center has served the last of its customers. The owner, Bella Balashnikov, busies herself putting back colorful bras in their little boxes, and talks about the old days. Recalling Arad's one time mayor, Avraham Shochat, she says, "Now there was a mayor who cared, but after him there were only people who came to sit in the chair."

Balashnikov, who has been here with her family since 1977, concedes that she misses the old days. But as someone who grew up in Rishon Letzion, she realizes that if Arad of the old days is gone, so is Rishon Letzion. "Everywhere people are sitting in front of their televisions watching their soap operas," she says. "And life here is great. So what if we have a few drunks. Who doesn't? We have immigrants from Russia, well-educated; we have an excellent high school. I really love it here. All we need is leadership."

Mayor Motti Brill was replaced earlier this month by an Interior Ministry appointee. The city born 45 years ago to be the crowing glory of the desert is now officially in the same class as Mitzpeh Ramon, Ofakim, Kiryat Gat, Yeruham and other frontier towns, with appointee mayors either threatened or installed.

Brill, who was elected in 2003, cut spending on education and welfare, and fought the Interior Ministry and the Tamar Regional Council for the right to garner tax revenues from factories and hotels in which many of Arad's residents work, to add NIS 20 million a year to the city's coffers. He was not accused of corruption, but he made many enemies along the way, and the city council shot down whatever he proposed. The opposition stymied the 2007 budget, and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit finally stepped in and appointed Gideon Bar-Lev as temporary mayor.

Brill's petition to the High Court of Justice against Sheetrit, claiming his dismissal was illegal, will be heard next week. But the people of Arad, even his supporters, say he is neither the problem nor the solution.

"We don't like that we've lost our democracy," said Eliezer Bar-Sadeh, editor of the local newspaper, Hatzvi. "It's a slap in the face. But we love this city and we don't intend to give up."

Arad was founded in 1962 with the vision of a "great ingathering" of secular Ashkenazis, imbued with Zionism, its architecture planned meticulously and its population chosen by a committee that chose only "suitable" applicants. The great wave of immigrantion from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s forced on Arad a great social experiment. Within a few years, 40 percent of its inhabitants were Russian-speakers. The city split into clans and communities: the founders, internal immigrants from other southern towns, the Ethiopians, Russians, Gerer Hassids and even a hesder yeshiva. Some of the old-timers left, and apartment prices plummeted (although in recent months they have upturned slightly).

However, the new social order is not the problem, either. The problem is that people have stopped believing in their city. In the city council, there were about seven new immigrants who didn't know Hebrew, four ultra-Orthodox and four more seats from various parties. Under such circumstances, the municipal government really would have to be appointed within a year or two.

"Why do we need an elected mayor?" said Aharon Danzinger, who works in the Rotem fertilizer factory. "Maybe the appointee will get more for the city. We have the example of Amram Mitzna in Yeruham, an appointee who improved education and tourism."

The lack of faith in politics is not a sign of indifference. Arad, with a population of some 24,000, has dozens of voluntary benevolent organizations, along with sports and women's organizations, and desert orienteering groups for young people to increase their appreciation of their surroundings, and perhaps not move to Tel Aviv some day.

Dr. Danny Shore, a dentist, who together with his wife founded the local Lions Club, says that volunteering has kept founders like them part of the community. "The variety of groups in Arad is a given," he says. "What we must do is strengthen the human resources in the community." Danzinger, who runs the municipal basketball department believes that such activity can "bring back the bloom to Arad."

"There are a lot of good people here, but they are not politicians and did not create political movements," Bar-Sadeh, the newspaper editor, says. He says people are trying to formulate a "vision" for Arad, and move ahead with certain projects, like bringing the Israel Defense Forces mega-camp to the Arad area rather than the Negev highlands.

But Bar-Sadeh says the neglect of Arad is psychological no less than physical. "For people from central Israel, the south is an extra appendage. Who needs all these dusty spaces? Money will not solve our problems, but rather leadership. If you look at who's sitting in the Knesset, how can you complain about a mayor in the South?"