A Family Affair: How the Mayor's Relatives and Likud Activists Help Run Netanya

A Haaretz probe raises questions about the actions of Mayor Miriam Feirberg — especially how she and certain close family members have benefitted from local real estate deals.

Apartment buildings under construction in Netanya (archives).
Ofer Vaknin

Multi-million dollar property deals, nepotism in City Hall and political appointments were just some of the findings of a Haaretz inquiry into the conduct of Miriam Feirberg Ikar, Netanya's mayor for the last two decades.

The starting point of the Haaretz probe was a 200-square-meter seaside luxury apartment built by Avraham Tshuva, brother of energy and property magnate Yitzhak Tshuva. It’s registered in the name of a lawyer, but he’s a trustee: It belongs to Feirberg.

Feirberg had bought a piece of the land on which the building was erected 10 years ago, after which the plot was rezoned and the building rights were expanded, doubling the land’s value. She herself signed the building permit, though claims to have signed a conflict-of-interest statement years beforehand.

Nearby is another project, this one built by Itzik Tshuva, nephew of the energy baron. He owns 80% of the top floor penthouse, worth about 8 million shekels; Feirberg’s son and his wife own the other 20%. Mayor Feirberg is signed on that building permit too and told Haaretz that she doesn’t remember when her son told her of his acquisition. The son won’t say how much he paid for his stake in the residence.

Feirberg’s husband worked on the city Planetarium project and holds meetings at a municipal company, though he has no official role in City Hall. Her son, a lawyer, visits the city engineering department and has access to top city officials. Haaretz learned that the son, Tzafrir Feirberg, was paid for consulting on the Terraces, a seaside project erected on land rezoned for residential and hotel property, with quadrupled building rights. He wouldn’t reveal the amount he was paid and threatened to “set fire to the life” of the person who revealed his role in the project to Haaretz.

Our inquiry also found that six people who helped with Miriam Feirberg’s reelection received city jobs — two of the posts hadn’t existed before the election.

Haaretz also learned that city employees are engaged in signing people up to the Likud party. Feirberg first said that signing up with Likud is the only way to help Netanya; later she backtracked, saying she had never told anybody at City Hall to recruit people to Likud.

Cliffside conveniences

In 2005, Mayor Feirberg was on the District Planning and Building Council that agreed to rezone beachfront land from hotels to residential property, and to increase building rights fivefold.

In 2006, Feirberg bought a 2.5% stake in the land (for $84,000, she says). Today that land has no hotels, but does have a 19-story high-rise named “Coral – Luxury on the Cliff." Feirberg owns an 11th-floor apartment worth about 4 million shekels (a little over $1 million).

She acted through a lawyer, Avraham Gugig, whose name was registered in the tabu (Land Registry). Why conceal her ownership? She didn’t want Avraham Tshuva, one of the landowners, to know of her involvement, she told Haaretz: “I wanted to be treated like anyone else, not heaven forbid for people to say I received special treatment, or got a discount.”

Gugig is also Avraham Tshuva’s lawyer and was involved in passing the project through the district planning council.

Feirberg stresses that she wasn’t involved in planning and permit processes: “The day I made the purchase, I reported to the municipality’s legal counsel and city engineer that I had bought a piece of land, had a conflict of interest and had to recuse myself from handling,” she says.

She declared the property in statements of wealth to the state comptroller and to income tax authorities, Feirberg says, and showed the statements to Haaretz. But she says she can’t find the conflict of interest statement or documents showing she had informed the city of the purchase. The lawyer and engineer evidently lost the paperwork, she says.

After rezoning in 2011 and expansion of rights from 15,000 square meters to 70,000, and the addition of 104 housing units, the value of Feirberg’s piece rose to $125,000, based on an appraisal.

Feirberg wasn’t at the district council meetings where the plans were discussed and approved but in 2013, when the builder got a final permit, her involvement is undeniable. The permit has two signatures, as required: one of the city engineer Paul Vital. The other signature should have been that of the committee chairman, Rabbi Shimon Sher, but it’s hers.

Feirberg insists that she has not been involved with Coral since buying her bit, and signed the permit without realizing it was that one, since the paper bore the name of previous owners whom she did not know. She also claims her signature on such permits is a mere formality.

Rabbi Sher confirms that it was highly unusual for Feirberg to sign in his name but that day he’d been away, so she acted on his behalf, he says. Feirberg says Vital knew of her conflict of interest.

In the name of the son

Near the Coral is T-Towers and its 8 million shekel penthouse. Tzafrir and his wife bought 20% of the land associated with the apartment in 2009-2010. Miriam Feirberg signed the building permit on December 18, 2013, in the capacity as head of the local planning committee. She says the name of the landowners wasn't listed, only that of the trustee lawyer. She says she didn’t know it was a project in which her son owned property and signed the document, one of many, in good faith.

Tzafrir Feirberg, 42, is a lawyer, who interned in Gugig’s offices. He has his own law firm today. Both their names arose in connection with another beachfront project, the Terraces, where instead of an 8-story retirement home, a 28-story hotel-residential tower went up. The district planning council approved the change in 2008.

Among the lawyers handling the project was Gugig, who told Haaretz that Tzafrir worked with him on obtaining Tourism Ministry permits and that they both got fees.

The ministry says Tzafrir’s name doesn’t appear in the project file. Tzafrir told Haaretz by phone that he did work together with the Tourism Ministry: “Somebody here is talking nonsense. Let’s meet and talk.”

He came to the meeting armed with criminal lawyer Benny Katz, who answered the questions for him. “He didn’t understand what you were talking about,” Katz told us. “He didn’t understand and didn’t confirm it.” Later in the conversation, asked if he ever received pay from Gugig, Katz said, “No. Categorically. Never considered it.”

Yet later, Tzafrir’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur stated that Tzafrir provided legal counsel on the hotel-tourism aspect of the Terraces, at the builder’s initiative. “At first the builder wanted Attorney Feirberg to also handle purchase agreements with homebuyers in the project. That part of the project handling was transferred to Attorney Avraham Gugig.”

Tzafrir admits receiving fees for the Terraces deal, saying only that it was a “usual” amount but refusing to state how much. On the morphing versions, Ben Tzur claimed that Tzafrir hadn’t denied receiving money; the questions had been misleading.

The builder still denies paying Tzafrir money: “Neither I nor my partner ever employed him in the Terraces project. I asked Tzafrir to join my legal team but he refused and recommended Gugig.”

Deck the hallways

According to three people who worked and still work at City Hall, Tzafrir Feirberg is commonly seen in the hallways of the municipality, meeting with the head of the permits department, the legal counsel and others. Another municipal worker says he met with the head of the engineering department. Speaking with Haaretz, Tzafrir Feirberg denies involvement in City Hall and claims someone is out to smear him.

“I want that source because I want to sue his ass. I want to take him to the police and to court. I will take this source and burn his life down just for what he did now. ”

Later he apologized, saying he had lost his cool and the statements do not reflect his position.

Meanwhile, Itzik Tshuva has become a rising star in Netanya real estate, notably building luxury beachfront apartment projects, like the Coral and T-Towers. Miriam Feirberg claims to have no conflict of interest with him, but only with his father Avraham, regarding the Coral. She adds that she signed two demolition orders for structures belonging to Itzik Tshuva and would hardly have done that if she’d wanted to give him “protekzia” or preferential treatment, she points out, adding that she only “knows him from events and weddings."

Haaretz obtained her calendar and found that within four months in 2009, she met with Itzik, Yitzhak and Avraham Tshuva five times to discuss an urban renewal project. No minutes were recorded at the meetings. The state comptroller wrote that Feirberg claimed to be holding private meetings with friends, but when a mayor meets with friends like that, who became huge builders, she should adhere to protocol and record minutes.

Her schedule delivered to the state comptroller was missing some meetings. For example, the page for November 27, 2009 was missing — on that day, Feirberg met with “Yitzhak Tshuva” at a café . It's not clear if that refers to the energy baron or his nephew Itzik.

Responding to the state comptroller, Feirberg said she acted in good faith.

Unofficial but in state

Feirberg’s husband Roni Ikar, formerly the municipality director-general, also seems to be involved in city affairs, though he’s had no official position there since 2005. (He’d headed the city water company but resigned after a petition challenging the propriety of his position, considering that his wife was mayor.)

Ikar holds meetings at the office of the Netanya Development and Tourism Company (called “Halat”) and was involved in building the city’s 28-million-shekel planetarium.

Haaretz obtained a tape of a former city employee asking a Halat official, “When are you opening the Planetarium?... Roni managed that well.” “Roni? He didn’t get into the implementation. Roni dealt, you know, with content,” the officer answered. “Roni handled the management with Miriam.”

The official notes that Roni would have meetings about the progress of the planetarium about once a month. He goes on to state that "in another city, it would have been the mayor who comes to check [on the project]. He was helping his wife, why not? Isn’t his son around all the time?”

The city employee says on tape that he gets emails from Ikar with instructions about equipment procurement. “Roni doesn’t hide it,” says the Halat official.

Ikar generously donated time to the Planetarium project, Feirberg stated.

Scratch my back

Six people who worked in the mayor's last election campaign have been hired by city hall; in two cases the city created new jobs for them.

A city employee says people with no qualifications were hired because they helped Feirberg get elected. “The standard is scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” he says. “Nobody knows what some of these city workers actually do.”

After the election, the city published an internal tender for the head of the transport department. It was won by city worker Ayelet Tamim, who was subsequently pressured to withdraw, after which the city published an external tender that was won by one Micky Elhiani, Feirberg’s campaign head. Elhiani told Haaretz that he hadn’t been promised a job after the elections and says he has the qualifications.

Another helpful soul, Roi Zeltzer, had been a city employee before the election; afterwards he was promoted to a job that hadn’t existed before, head of the Torah Culture Department. Zeltzer says he won a tender and is qualified.

A special projects department was created, headed by Ronen Mentin, a city employee with only a high school education, who took unpaid leave from the municipality to work for Feirberg’s campaign and even donated 5000 shekels to her cause. “It should have been called the Department for the Mayor’s Helpful People,” quips a former city official.

Haaretz has obtained evidence that one “special project” involves registering people to Likud, a task for which city inspectors get paid overtime. They can’t say no, a city official says on tape. “Miriam wants to strengthen her power with the ministers and the way to do that is to bring registered voters,” a former city worker explains. “Miraculously, the number of registered Likud voters in Netanya increased by hundreds in recent months. The credit goes to Miriam.” An internal Likud document confirms 840 new party members in Netanya so far in 2016, compared with 130 in all of 2015.

“I don’t run for Likud, I’m on an independent list. I have no personal interest in registering people for Likud. It could hurt me,” Feirberg told Haaretz. “But that’s the only way to help Netanya, unfortunately.” She added that she hadn’t been aware city inspectors were involved. “I asked people in general, not employees,” she clarified.

The Netanya municipality stated that it has 2,500 employees of whom fewer than 10 were involved in political activity. All workers are hired by proper procedures. Its appointments are never determined by politics, but it isn’t illegal to hire local political activists. The mayor isn’t involved in hiring and isn’t on tender committees.

Regarding Tzafrir Feirberg’s visits to city hall, his lawyer Ben Tzur stated that he rarely visits the engineering department and has occasionally visited the permits department in recent years. Whenever he did so, it was on the job, and was never under improper circumstances.

Gugig stated that he bought his share of the Coral land in May 2006 with other buyers for the same price they paid. Several lawyers got fees from the Terraces buyers, one of whom was Tzafrir, and his office had been active in Netanya well before Feirberg became mayor. He never received preferential treatment by City Hall: “On the contrary.”

Avraham Tshuva stated that Gugig bought 2.5% of the Coral land from Yossi Tshuva (representing one apartment). Beyond inviting the mayor to major family events like weddings, he has no personal contact with her, he said. Itzik Tshuva said he had nothing to add to that. Yitzhak Tshuva’s spokespeople said he has no connection with business by Itzik or Avraham Tshuva.