Back to the Ballot Box

After five years under a popular appointed mayor, Yeruham returns to the polls for municipal elections next month. Residents, who insist they want a quiet campaign, seem to have two strong mayoral candidates to choose from

On a hot afternoon in Yeruham, one does not get a sense that election season is intensifying: All that wafts up from the sidewalk is the scalding heat. On the road into town, a cafeteria serves spicy salads, shawarma and drinks. The doors are open, there is no air conditioning, and patrons enter and depart freely. Michael Biton, who heads the One Yeruham list in the municipal elections, is busy eating, shaking hands and analyzing the political situation in his hometown. In green-yellow campaign posters, Biton peers through thin-framed glasses, and promises to "return power to the people."

A campaign poster for Biton, Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

A few hours later, Moti Avisrur, the Likud party's mayoral candidate in the elections, sits in the town's cool, air-conditioned community center. Avisrur has served as mayor in the past for a total of 12 years. Just a few weeks ago he announced his decision to run in this race. His campaign has yet to get off the ground: He has neither assistants nor an Internet site.

Next year, Yeruham will celebrate its 60th anniversary. The crater located on its outskirts seems somehow symbolic: Founded in an empty desert abyss, the city has filled its history with layers of immigrants and residents. Early pioneers included immigrants from Romania and North Africa; then came immigrants from India, and "pioneer" groups from the Bnei Akiva youth movement, who starting in the mid-1980s came from other parts of the country to make the desert bloom; followed by the Haredim. The last wave of residents was comprised of immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

On November 23, more than 5,000 residents will elect a new municipal council and a mayor. The winner in the first such elections since 2003 will have to deal with a budget deficit of NIS 3.4 million, along with unemployment of around 8 percent and, in particular, the shadow cast by Amram Mitzna, who for the past five years served as an appointed mayor, after the municipal council was disbanded.

Mitzna, one-time GOC Central Command, former mayor of Haifa and Labor Party head, was summoned by the interior minister in 2005, and asked to save the town from a huge budget deficit bequeathed to it by the council and its Labor mayor, Baruch Elmakayes. Over the past five years, Mitzna managed to narrow the town's deficit, largely by raising donations and adding residents to the roster of municipal property-taxpayers, as well as by creating tourist projects and the Ofek employment center.

In its 2010 edition, Yeruham is trying to project an image of municipal health and prosperity. A new residential neighborhood is under construction, after a surprising total of 400 prospective buyers submitted bids in a lottery for 68 lots at the beginning of the year. The town council plans to establish a neighborhood for Israel Defense Forces officers and their families, who will move to the area after construction of a new IDF training center is completed nearby, some three years from now.

After the upcoming municipal elections the town will set out on its new path.

"I feel a personal sense of commitment. The time has come for me to be mayor," says Biton, sitting in his campaign headquarters - a small white dwelling located on the town's main thoroughfare. The door is open; campaign workers come and go; literature in Hebrew and Russian is piled up at the doorway. A worker in shorts organizes refreshments for visitors.

Biton was born in Yeruham 40 years ago, into a religious family of 11 that immigrated from Morocco. He has five children. At the age of 17, he took off his skullcap, and decided to quit his religious studies and to serve in the IDF. His participation in an officers course is featured in a 1991 documentary film directed by Eitan Oren, "To Be an Officer." The film, broadcast that year by Channel 1, followed the efforts of a few cadets in the course.

"There are fears, naturally, stemming from your lack of knowledge concerning what you are to go through," Biton says in the documentary. In it, he is a 19-year-old cadet who, while supervising cleaning work undertaken by Palestinians at the Jabalya refugee camp, in the Gaza Strip, states: "Under today's reality, I don't know how to end this story here, but there's no doubt that it has to come to an end."

Biton arrived for the first broadcast of the documentary back then from a tour of duty in Lebanon. The community center was filled, he says, with proud town residents. Recalling the experience, 19 years later, with a smile, he observes that in the days when the country had a single TV station, and viewer ratings of 100 percent, he received phone calls from the media and citizens alike after the broadcast.

After completing his army service, Biton traveled overseas to study English. Upon his return, he studied for a bachelor's degree in behavioral sciences, and a master's in organizational management (focusing on nonprofits ). Since then, he has held an array of public positions, including stints as head of Yeruham's community center, managing the Jewish Agency's Be'er Sheva district, and establishing the Youth of Yeruham nonprofit organization, which deals with educational and settlement issues in the town.

"It is clear to me that serving as mayor of a municipality that has limited resources, in a politicized region, is a complicated task," Biton says, as he embarks on a well-photographed round of kisses and handshakes with town residents.

Biton brushes aside questions that relate to his lack of political experience. "I have management experience," he insists, "know the town's political apparatus, and meet extensively with its residents." Referring to Yeruham's reputation, he declares, "The fact that the media looks for an image that adheres to the idea of a low-income development town is not a surprise. We are not going to compete with Tel Aviv in a battle to develop entertainment and leisure spots. We are emphasizing education and social harmony."

"To be a successful mayor in the center of the country, you need to be an average person. In Yeruham, however, you have to be much more creative," explains Uri Liberti, an organizational psychologist who arrived in Yeruham with a Bnei Akiva group 25 years ago, and is volunteering for Biton's campaign.

Another Biton volunteer, Anna Mezhritzki, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1991, describes the candidate thus: "He is well-educated. For those of us from Russia, the rule was that children have to study and receive an academic degree, and so education impresses us."

Biton presents surveys prepared by the Maagar Mochot research institute, which indicate that he has a 9-percent lead over his Likud rival. Avisrur, however, is not alarmed. "It is clear that he [Biton] has a lead today, but now that I've joined the race, things will change," he declares.

Both candidates hail from religious families (though he does not wear a skullcap, Biton keeps a kosher home, and sends his children to a state religious school ), both worked in previous municipal elections for Likud (Biton worked with Avisrur in the 1998 election ), and both see improving local education as a major municipal priority.

Fifty-nine votes

Moti Avisrur belonged to the local high school's first class of students in the academic (as opposed to vocational ) track, but the school shut down the program when he was in 11th grade, and so he and some peers were sent to Dimona to complete their education. During his tenure as mayor, the percentage of high-school students in Yeruham who completed their matriculation exams leaped from 5 percent to 70 percent; in 1999, an educational project he spearheaded won an award bestowed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

A brochure produced by the Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel in May 2003 cited Yeruham the home of one of five examples of "local leaderships that promote change," and as a paradigm of success in local government. Relating to Yeruham under Avisrur's leadership, the publication declares that he "stabilized the municipality's shaky financial situation within one year, vastly improved the level of town services, and set an example of an utterly different, positive, style of leadership."

"The public knows what happened during the period I served as mayor," says Avisrur today. "It misses that period, and wants it to return. I am happy that Mitzna came; he provided an image."

Town residents use terms like "strife" and "war" to depict the campaign leading up to the 2003 municipal elections. Avisrur was challenged by Baruch Elmakayes, who enlisted the support of the town's religious population. Avisrur refrained from making promises - and lost the race to Elmakayes by a mere 59 votes.

Avisrur stresses that he has the experience and means to preserve and strengthen Yeruham's status.

"It makes it easier that I have come up through the party. Likud is the ruling party. Time is short. A coalition needs to be formed at once, and it needs to have a vision; council members need to act for the public good," Avisrur says, hinting at his decision in 2003 not to surrender to sectarian pressures, a choice that may have cost him the election.

Since that defeat, he has held a number of public roles, including membership in the country's Council for Higher Education. Pointing to the silence he has maintained for the past seven years, his opponents say the former mayor has shown indifference toward the town, and is thus not a worthy candidate.

"I made a point of not interfering, but rather of assisting with anything Mitzna wanted to do," Avisrur explains. "How would it have looked had I intervened?"

Local pundits expect the battle between Avisrur and Biton to be close, and only to be decided in a second round of balloting, since a third candidate, Ilan Elmakayes (not a relation of the former mayor ) is likely to split votes in the initial round of voting.

During the holidays last month, the impression one received in town was that residents were hoping for a quiet election season, and a peaceful aftermath to the vote.

"We want another five years of peace and quiet, without a lot of politics and wars," says Yossi, a resident. "What we experienced during the last election race between Elmakayes and Avisrur caused all of us to be disgusted with politics. This campaign is not stirring up emotions, and you won't see wars on the street."

Some residents suggest that Mitzna's main accomplishment was not the town's economic development, but rather the emergence of a high-quality local leadership during his time in City Hall.

At the end of the 1991 film, the director Oren asks the cadet Biton what he is made of. "First of all," Biton says, staring straight into the camera, "I am a product of the education I received in the home where I was raised, out of the warmth and humanity that had almost no limits."

Twenty years later, Biton, Avisrur and other candidates in the municipal elections are looking forward, proposing to residents that the past should be left behind, and hoping to help bring a prosperous future to the desert town.