A Merger That Endangers Liberal, Secular Tel Aviv

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Tel Aviv is by far the most sought-after metropolitan area
Tel Aviv. Credit: Dreamstime
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

These days Shlomo Lahiani is buttonholing voters, and he sees himself as the likely mayor of the joined city of Tel Aviv-Bat Yam come 2023.

Thats not as crazy as it sounds. Lahiani remains hugely popular in Bat Yam, where he was mayor before he was convicted and sent to prison for fraud and breach of trust. Under the terms of his sentence, his ban from political office will have expired by 2023.

His dreams of returning to city hall, this time the one located on Tel Avivs Rabin Square, is based on two assumptions: 1. that the proposed merger of Tel Aviv with its poorer southern suburb is a fait accompli, and 2. that it will create a bloc of 160,000 Bat Yam voters together with their peers in south Tel Aviv who share the same demographic characteristics.

What it spells is the end of Tel Aviv as a bastion of wealthy, liberal secularism. Right-wing, traditional and lower-income voters will have the power.

Strangely enough, senior officials are using the same scenario to overcome the resistance of Yossi Bachar, Bat Yams current mayor, who regards the merger as noting less than a hostile takeover. Rather than 90-year-old Bat Yam losing its identity in the much larger Tel Aviv, officials at Tel Aviv City hall whisper about the reverse process occurring.

It might be not only a political revolution for Tel Aviv, but a social and cultural one as well. It could also be a fiscal revolution, as Bat Yam will be bringing with it an annual budget deficit that runs about 120 million shekels to 250 million shekels ($33 million to $69 million).

Why would Tel Aviv agree to what amounts to municipal suicide? Prof. Eran Razin, an expert on urban studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says its because Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai understands that he has no choice: His city is under attack by financially distressed communities surrounding it, and eventually the Interior Ministry will accede to their demands for money.

Huldai reasons that if Tel Aviv is going to share resources, its poorer neighbors should agree to merge — bearing in mind that they will lose their independence. In any case, merging with Bat Yam will turn Tel Aviv into a city of 600,000, ensuring its place as the center of the Gush Dan region.

Theres no disputing that Bat Yam is a poor city, but under Lahiani it made a lot of progress. For instance, today 82% of its students pass the bagrut (matriculation exam), a rate higher than anywhere else in Gush Dan, including Tel Aviv. Economically, the city has enjoyed a renaissance of residential and commercial development, despite a severe land shortage.

But the city still runs a big deficit, and if it were to provide the level of services it should, that red ink would grow to 250 million shekels a year, its director general estimates. Thats why Bat Yam came hat in hand to the Interior Ministry seeking some of the revenues from its wealthier neighbors and why the Interior Ministry and Tel Aviv came back with the counteroffer of a merger: It would solve Bat Yams money problems once and for all.

In return for covering the absorption costs, Tel Aviv asked for — and, atypically, received — Finance Ministry approval for 200 million shekels of aid annually over the first decade of the merger. To bring Bat Yam on board, officials are holding out the prospect of a quasi-merger, making the city the first recruit to a Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan government.

Thats a new concept — for Israel, at least — in urban administration. There are variations on the idea but it would mean creating a supercity with several sub-municipalities under it, much like Greater London.

The supercity gets responsibility for things like education, transportation, welfare and infrastructure, creating a unified system ideal for a tiny, heavily populated area like Gush Dan, while other functions remain with the sub-cities. A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that metropolitan areas improve municipal efficiency by 5% or 6% and boost growth 0.28% annually on average.

The goal of creating a Greater Tel Aviv is behind the Interior Ministrys backing of the Tel Aviv-Bat Yam merger. If it succeeds, Givatayim would be next and maybe Ramat Gan afterward. And maybe liberal, secular Tel Aviv could stay the way it is.