Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, at right in blue shirt, talking to local environmentalists last week (photo by Daniel Cherrin).
In Tel Aviv, the dialog between the city establishment and local green groups has not always been constructive. In fact, huge gaps exist between City Hall and the greens on everything from road-building and bike lanes to how to prune the city's trees.
Last week, however, a first step was taken on the road to a more productive dialog when Mayor Ron Huldai and several prominent environmental organizations and residents' groups held an introductory meeting. Though agreeing to disagree on many issues, the encounter proved enlightening for both sides, and revealed some areas of common concern. "We all want what's best for the city," Tel Aviv's mayor told a packed crowd of activists and environmental professionals last Monday, "and that includes future generations." Describing himself as a mayor who believes in sustainable development, the son of a naturalist and a former kibbutz gardener, Huldai discussed his policies frankly and directly.
Representatives of environmental groups treated Huldai to presentations on urban nature and transportation issues, and proposed several concrete ideas for promoting sustainability in the city. A central proposal was to appoint a municipal ecologist, whose job would be to monitor and protect ecosystems in and around the city. The mayor, who seemed receptive to the idea, promised to look into it.
On the more controversial issue of transportation in the city, there was less agreement. While green groups suggested a move toward sustainable transport policies, which would give greater priority to public transit, bike lanes and pedestrians, the mayor insisted that the issue was not under his authority. While he agreed that "the era of the private car is over," and recognized that the future will belong to more sustainable methods of transportation, the mayor insisted that, in Israel's centralized political system, mayors have "zero" authority to determine transport policy. He did, however, defend some of the new road-building projects in the city, which many of the environmentalists described as a serious mistake and a misallocation of resources at best.
The mayor's senior staff, a handful of prominent officials who accompanied him to the meeting, did not utter a word during the entire two-hour encounter.
The audience, for the most part, reacted with measured skepticism, asking the mayor pointed questions that at times bordered on the provocative. Though recently reelected to a third term, this was the mayor's first organized meeting with the city's green organizations (although, as he noted, he had already met many individuals in various committees and hearings).
The pent up frustration of many in the room from a decade of non-communication and strained relations with City Hall was palpable. Some speculated that the mayor had apparently had a change of heart, while others suggested that his new attitude came in response to a new political reality in the city, with the mayor challenged by a new red-green opposition party.
It was unclear if the meeting was the first of many or an isolated event. However, at least one earnest olive branch was proffered by student activist Gil Yaakov. While admitting that the mayor and the greens had not cooperated much in the past, Yaakov noted that the current situation demanded leadership.
"We are willing to provide you with whatever support you need to accomplish the things that we have discussed tonight," said Yaakov. "Will you provide the leadership?"