Israel owes much of its success in so many areas to those who work behind the scenes on the local political front. Haim Bibas, mayor of Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut and chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, has used his skills at administration and diplomacy to become the country’s “mayor of all mayors.”
The Jewish Press: How did you become involved in politics and administration?
Bibas: I was born in Beit She’an. Following my service in the Israeli army, I was a lieutenant colonel in the IDF reserves for four years. From there I got a degree in political science from the University of Haifa and a master’s degree in public administration and local government from Bar-Ilan University. I started out working in local government in Tel Aviv as the manager of the Central Region Environment and Transportation Authority. From there I went on to manage public education, overseeing a budget of one billion shekel a year.
I moved to Modi’in when it was founded in the 1990s. In 2002, Yariv Levin, who is now minister of tourism, and I established the Likud Party in Modi’in and were elected to the council in 2003. By 2008, I was elected as mayor of the combined Modiin-Maccabim-Re’ut.
You’ve served as head of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political campaigns. How did you establish a relationship with him?
After Netanyahu lost his bid for reelection in 1999, I met with him and discussed ideas of how he could again become Israel’s leader. We’ve worked together ever since then. I served as the head of Netanyahu’s campaign four times. I work with the prime minister now as chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, where I am involved in promoting all local governments and municipalities.
How difficult is it to work simultaneously as a mayor and within the government on a national level?
I spend around 75 percent of my time in Modi’in because it’s such a large city. A third of Modi’in’s population is under the age of 18 and we build approximately one thousand new apartments every year. The other 25 percent of my time I work with the local governments in Israel, along with the prime minister and all the other ministers, to promote local municipalities from the Galilee to the Negev. These include small cities, mid-size cities, and the fifteen largest cities of Israel. We oversee 257 municipalities and touch the lives of more than 8 million citizens.
How many of these cities include Israeli Arabs and how do you relate to them?
Eighty-three of these cities in Israel are Arab cities – Muslim, Bedouin, Druze, and Circassian. We promote programs for the Muslim Arab population of around 13 billion shekel to complete the gaps in their infrastructure and other needs. We offer other programs for the Circassian and Druze. The Druze are different because most of them serve in the IDF. We promote programs in their schools and educational systems. And we advance one billion shekel to the Bedouin in the northern part of Israel. The southern part is more problematic because of “illegal areas.” We are dealing with the same issues cities all over the world are dealing with.
Do you find opportunities to promote Israel in a positive way when you come into contact with officials of cities in other countries?
Of course. When I meet with mayors in different cities in Europe or the United States we talk about the same things – education, transportation, welfare, and infrastructure. I was recently at a conference for all sister cities in China and most of the mayors came from Europe, South America, Lebanon, and Turkey. The issues we discuss all share a common denominator, whether it’s Beirut, Ankara, Mexico City, or Paris.
I try to educate them about Israel. We bring people to Israel from abroad, including ambassadors and groups of students. We would like to bring mayors from sister cities in Israel to come and learn about our country too. Modi’in has sister cities in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Rochester, New York; and Haikou, China. We would like to bring them to Israel to promote Israeli companies, increase development, and invest in this wonderful place.
Israel is a leader in technology. Do you find world leaders eager to learn from Israel’s accomplishments?
Yes. Israel’s technological breakthroughs are the future. Most of the knowledge that comes from the start-ups and technology companies in Israel leads the systems for everyone around the world. We would like to continue spreading this knowledge. However, we also have to concentrate on first bringing this knowledge to create our own “smart cities” in Israel. We need to use our own innovations to save them money, manage budgets, operate better education systems, etc.
Have you ever encountered anti-Semitism while working with mayors in different cities?
Most of the problems are not in the United States, they’re in Europe. I work with Rochester and we concentrate on bringing Jews from the United States to Israel and bringing Israelis to Rochester to give them the opportunity to learn about Israel and help them counter anti-Semitism. We also work hard in Europe on behalf of the Jewish communities but they’re much more preoccupied there. In the United States, the Jewish communities are much stronger.
Does the advent of the Trump administration make any difference for Israel in terms of internal policies?
As far as the municipalities are concerned, it’s no different if it’s Obama or Trump. But for the state of Israel it is a very important difference…. America is the greatest friend of Israel, and Trump assures the Israeli people of the strength of that alliance. He instills confidence in Israel’s ability to deal with our neighbors in Syria, Lebanon, and even with Russia.
In a speech on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Netanyahu attributed Israel’s success story to the Jewish people. Would you agree they are Israel’s biggest assets?
The story of the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora, is a story of survival. We have always survived – since we left Egypt, traveled through the Red Sea, by the Sinai Mountain, and through Moab to our arrival in Israel. After the Holocaust, we have spent the last 69 years since the establishment of Israel promoting it and working on it. We built cities, infrastructure, connected the north to the south, west to the east. We are the start-up nation. Israel is a small country, with only eight million citizens, but investors from all over the world are eager to take knowledge from us.
I was invited by the Chinese government to visit as part of a formal delegation. The Chinese made it clear they think most of the world’s geniuses are the Jews who live in Israel. They see Jews as constantly innovating and always being proactive in their innovation. If the Chinese give us something to work on, we always improvise on that innovation and bring it to the top level. In everything. This is the great ability of the Jewish people and it can be attributed to our history. It is our Jewish heritage that sustains us and gives us the opportunity to succeed in all fields.