Israel's Most Influential | Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai

Tel Aviv's longtime mayor isn't afraid to skirt the national government in order to carry out far-reaching changes that change the fabric of life, such as introducing transportation on Shabbat. Where Tel Aviv goes, Israel follows.

Meirav Moran
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Ron Huldai.
Meirav Moran

After 21 years as Tel Aviv mayor, Ron Huldai can be said to be the politician with the most influence on Israelis’ day-to-day lives. Tel Aviv’s economic prosperity has given him the financial footing to carry out major improvements; he doesn’t need the central government’s backing.

Meanwhile, Huldai doesn’t court political allies, and he’s free to make decisions that change people’s way of life. The results extend far beyond his city. Other mayors want to partner with him  or merely copy his example.

If it weren’t for Israel’s many security challenges, Huldai would have been ranked Israel’s top influencer. He’s No. 2 partly because he doesn’t worry much about what the cabinet thinks – or what the law is. He breaks rules and sets policies that intentionally violate the regulations. His initiatives change the national agenda and pull the rest of the country along. 

Huldai’s latest initiative is the Shabbat bus program. This service, launched last November, is free because of the prohibition on charging for public transportation on the Jewish sabbath. Neighboring cities jumped in to participate, so now the service runs through several of Tel Aviv’s suburbs, and demand for the service is high.

Huldai has thus set a new status quo, proving that demand exists for a service that had been blocked by religious considerations. And there’s no way back: Public transportation on Shabbat will expand to more cities. Regardless of which parties are in the government after the March 2 election, they will be addressing the issue while taking into account the new facts on the ground.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is basing his campaign on successful city projects such as the Tel-o-Fun bicycle-renting system.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This isn’t the first time Huldai’s leadership has set the pace for life beyond Tel Aviv. Over a decade ago he led a pro-bicycle blitz, including the municipal bike-rental system, Tel-O-Fun. He has also forged new bike paths throughout the city, ignoring regulations as necessary.

Sure enough, Israelis began using bicycles in droves, proving the worth of Huldai’s initiative and pushing the Knesset to amend transportation legislation and the ministries to plan bike paths in other cities as well. 

In another initiative by Huldai, developers must allocate a certain number of apartments as reduced-price rentals. Here, too, he beat the national government in identifying and serving a need.

Even Huldai’s mistakes have influence. One of them was a bid to raise taxes on short-term apartment rentals, aiming to make this business less attractive and return apartments to the residential market. But the Interior Ministry blocked this tax. 

Huldai may be a politician but he doesn’t give much thought to public opinion. As a former air force pilot and later a teacher and school principal, he does what needs to be done, not what people want to hear. When African asylum seekers started crowding into south Tel Aviv, he launched Mesila, a city agency offering social services to people without legal status. It supports schooling for this community’s children – despite public protest and the lack of national financing.

When Huldai entered the job in 1998, Tel Aviv had a particularly high population of students and other young people, with the middle class fleeing to the suburbs. Two decades later, Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive cities in the world, with a solid tourism industry and a global business center.

Tel Aviv serves Israel in part by offering an alternative image abroad and a liberal-friendly lifestyle. Huldai turned the gay pride parade from a protest into an event on the municipal calendar, buoying LGBT acceptance in other Israeli cities as well. 

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