Flouting the Law, Wealthy Residents Take Over Israeli City's Sea Cliff

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Galei Tchelet Street in Herzliya Pituach, August 20, 2020.
Galei Tchelet Street in Herzliya Pituach, August 20, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

It’s one of the most beautiful, expensive areas in Israel: the sandstone cliff along the sea in Herzliya Pituah. Below is the sea; above, the grand homes of wealthy Israelis and foreigners, and close to the cliff is an area meant to be open to the public. But anyone trying to hike there encounters barriers. Four of the wealthy people who live nearby have blocked off the cliff, with the knowledge of the Herzliya Municipality, which is not enforcing the law.

Galei Tchelet Street in Herzliya Pituach contains some of the country’s priciest homes. On the west side are the most exclusive of all: the mansions set 20 to 30 meters back from the cliff. Homes for the country’s Who’s Who started going up there in the 1960s. But the planners left a narrow strip for public use between the homes and the sea. It was even zoned separately, and is registered as Plot 560. In the past it had belonged to the American Zion Commonwealth, an organization that had purchased the land before the founding of the state.

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But in the 1980s the group went bankrupt, and the land was put up for sale. In the early 1990s, the land was purchased by those four villa owners so they could expand their homes. The Herzliya Municipality objected and sought to expropriate the plot. In response, the homeowners petitioned the High Court of Justice against the expropriation and its designation as open public land. Then-High Court President Meir Shamgar dismissed all their arguments, but this didn’t stop them from starting to establish facts on the ground.

If one visits the area one will see the sophisticated way the homeowners took over the land. A path that rises from Sidna Ali beach stretches across the cliff line until it reaches the huge home of the U.S. ambassador. South of the ambassador’s residence is the home of businessman Teddy Sagi, whose net worth is estimated at $4.5 billion. The home, the largest on the street, was once the country’s most expensive. Sagi, who paid 145 million shekels ($42.6 million) for the mansion, doesn’t even live in it; he lives in London.

On the west side of the home, toward the cliff, is a vast lawn of one dunam (a quarter acre). On the north side is a small gate, around 1.5 meters wide. On a visit in early August, the gate was amateurishly blocked by two small soccer goal posts and a wooden board against which surfboards had been laid.

According to the city’s aerial photographs, this entire dunam is supposed to be outside Sagi’s property. But there’s the rub – the lawn looks like it’s part of the private property, when in fact it belongs to the public.

Sagi’s spokesman insisted that the area is open and Sagi has no problem with people traversing it. “The yard area is the same area that was purchased by us a number of years ago as part of the transaction for the house,” said the statement. “We will look into the matter. But note that anyone can pass through the back way freely and without interference.”

But south of there, at the home of Igor Kolomoysky, a Ukrainian oligarch who now lives in his native land, the party ended. An employee who was summoned at the sight of uninvited guests marching past demanded that we leave immediately because it was private property.

Next to Kolomoysky’s house is an empty lot, inaccessible from the street, but accessible from the cliff. A small jump over the bushes leads to the home of American Arlene Strelitz. Past the pool at the back of the house is a lawn that looks as if it’s an integral part of her property, but it’s actually public property. The last lot belongs to Irit Strauss, daughter of Michael Strauss, former chairman of the food company bearing his name. The public property line cuts through her lawn, just past her pool, too.

One would think that this area would be under tight supervision given that it’s right near a beach that’s heavily used. But the Herzliya Municipality hasn’t lifted a finger. The city says it’s aware of the problem, adding, “In general the Herzliya municipality views gravely any sort of encroachment from private space into space that belongs to the public. In this case the city is aware of the encroachment of vegetation from the [private] plot to the public space. The city has solicited bids for a citywide survey of building violations and the violations will be enforced by law.”

Arlene Strelitz said, “It’s dangerous to walk near my house; they can’t build a promenade near my land because it’s too narrow and people will fall. The cliff isn’t stable. I planted there that so people shouldn’t fall.” Neither Strauss nor Kolomoysky could be reached for comment.

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