After 10 years in his shadow, Asaf Zamir wants to replace Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai

Deputy mayor, 38, running in long-shot campaign, promises to breathe new life into the city that never sleeps

Asaf Zamir, running for mayor in Tel Aviv, speaks to young voters at his campaign headquarters, on October 14, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Asaf Zamir, running for mayor in Tel Aviv, speaks to young voters at his campaign headquarters, on October 14, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Lifelong Tel Aviv resident Asaf Zamir is ready for a change of scenery.

“It is not a good thing for any leader, whether they are good or bad, to be in power for 20 years,” said Zamir, a candidate for mayor of the city who poses the only real challenge in longtime mayor Ron Huldai’s path to a fifth term.

“When you’ve been around for 20 years, you’ve already done everything that you can, [municipality workers] are too comfortable. We can’t just think, ‘It’s all good.’ We need to wake up every morning with a knife between our teeth.”

Zamir, one of the founders of the Tel Aviv party Ha’Ir, spent 10 years as Huldai’s deputy. But now the 38-year old politician is striking out on his own.

In July, Zamir was in third place in the mayoral race behind MK Stav Shaffir, according to a poll from Walla News, projected to capture just 11 percent of the vote. After Shaffir dropped out of the race, Zamir steadily climbed from an obscure name to a credible threat to Huldai’s otherwise clear path to victory.

Mayoral candidate Asaf Zamir at a campaign rally with 1,200 people, on September 6, 2018, in Tel Aviv. (Ariel Beshor/Courtesy)

According to a Walla poll from early October, Huldai is still in the lead with 32% of the vote, followed by Zamir with 23%. About a third of voters are still undecided. Candidate Asaf Harel, a comedian-turned-entrepreneur-turned politician, is in third place with 9%, followed by Natan Elnatan, a Haredi deputy mayor from the Shas party, with 7%. A Maariv poll put the two top candidates even closer, with Huldai leading Zamir by just 5.7% with a third of voters undecided.

On many of the issues, Zamir and Huldai share the same ideology. Both want to lower housing prices, improve public transportation, and make Israel’s most expensive city a bit more livable.

People wait for the bus near Hashalom train station by the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv, September 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zamir wants to build upward, adding high-rise apartments to busy thoroughfares that can absorb taller buildings, such as along the Ayalon Highway or Namir Rd. He also wants to expand the urban center of Tel Aviv by renovating streets in the more far-flung neighborhoods, such as Yad Eliyahu, with leafy boulevards resembling Ibn Gvirol or Rothschild Boulevard. People would then be able to live farther from the geographic center of Tel Aviv, but still have access to the special Tel Aviv blend of expensive coffee shops, trendy boutiques, and ubiquitous pet stores, reducing the demand for the crumbling apartments on the traditionally fashionable streets.

And he wants to utilize public-private partnerships to build subsidized apartments, something the municipality has already been spearheading in struggling neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv.

Zamir currently holds the education portfolio in the city council, and he points to the construction of Neve Ofer, one of the country’s most expensive high schools at over NIS 100 million, as one of the crowning achievements of his time as deputy mayor. The high school will eventually have over 1,000 students.

The biggest sector Zamir hopes to disrupt is transportation. “Ron Huldai and [Transportation Minister] Yisrael Katz have not spoken in ten years,” he said. “We need to improve this relationship.”

A spokesman for Ron Huldai refused to comment on the mayor’s relationship with Katz.

Beach Boys Brian Wilson (right) with Tel Aviv deputy mayor Asaf Zamir prior to Wilson’s June 8, 2016 concert. (Courtesy Tel Aviv Municipality)

Zamir is putting a big emphasis on bicycle infrastructure and integrating public transportation with the larger Gush Dan area, reducing the need for cars, especially those driven by commuters from outside the city. “Bike paths that replace parking spots are hard for businesses, but it’s the direction that cities need to move in,” he said.

“I really want to change the preference from private cars to buses,” Zamir said.

Last week, someone vandalized Zamir’s headquarters on Ibn Gvirol street with swastikas. Police opened an investigation into the the matter, which Zamir’s campaign attributed to his rising popularity against Huldai.

Swastikas discovered daubed on campaign office of Tel Aviv mayoral candidate Asaf Zamir on October 14, 2018. (Rov Hair campaign, courtesy)

Zamir is married to actress Maya Wertheimer, known for her role in the sitcom Shababnikim. Wertheimer’s grandfather, Stef Wertheimer, is a billionaire who founded tool fabrication companies and a number of industrial parks. He was a member of Knesset from 1977 to 1981.

Huldai was born in 1944 on Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel, which gave the family its name. He had a long career in the army and was principal of the prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium high school in Tel Aviv for six years, before becoming mayor in 1998.

As mayor, he has tackled major infrastructure projects such as a total renovation of the beachside promenade and attracted high tech companies to the city. However, many residents are dismayed by the skyrocketing cost of living and impossible real estate prices.

Huldai, 74, has won the past four mayoral campaigns by a large margin, receiving between 50%  and 62% of the votes. Under Israeli law, one mayoral candidate must receive at least 40% of the vote, otherwise a runoff is held with the two candidates who receive the highest percentage of the votes.

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai speaks during a concert at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on May 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The biggest challenge to Huldai’s mayoral position came in 2008, when MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) ran on a platform focused on social and environmental issues, and managed to capture 34% of the votes. Huldai took 51% of the votes.

Zamir’s party focuses on issues important to young people. Currently, his party holds four city council seats.

Zamir is also making a concentrated effort to reach out to immigrants, both English- and French-speaking, with a number of events for those populations. He spent four years in America himself as a child, from age 4 to 9, while his parents worked in Sarasota, Florida. There are three olim running on the Rov Ha’Ir list, although none are placed high enough to realistically become part of the city council. Rachel Schonwald, a 33-year-old originally from Washington, DC, who has lived in Tel Aviv for the past eight years, is 13th on the list.

Schonwald was one of the co-founders of Kol Oleh [Voice of the Oleh], a voter education initiative for English-speaking olim founded for the last municipal elections.

Campaign posters for the upcoming municipality elections in Tel Aviv, on October 9, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“[Municipalities] are one of the most important arenas for policy making these days, because these are the policies that affect your day-to-day life,” said Schonwald. “These are the policies make a place a desirable place to live.”

Schonwald said municipalities with large oleh populations can play an important role in ensuring that new immigrants do not leave the country. Combining services new immigrants need, such as ulpan language classes, job training initiatives, and the Ministry of Absorption office in the same building would be an important first step.

“But the issues olim face in Tel Aviv are not just olim issues,” Schonwald said, adding that public transportation infrastructure is especially important. “Olim are less likely to own a car, more likely to use bikes and take public transportation.”

A spokesman for Huldai said the city has experienced a groundswell of support for new immigrants, including being the top destination in the country for new olim for the past four years. The spokesman added that the city hopes to renovate the two main Hebrew-language instruction ulpans and, similar to Schonwald’s dream, create “one-stop-shops” for new immigrants combining all the services that new residents need, in addition to a co-working hub for new immigrants and organizations that assist them.

A surfer at Tel Aviv’s Hilton Beach, considered a hangout for the LGBT community, during the 2015 Gay Pride Week. (Matthew Hechter/Flash 90)

Schonweld said she hopes immigrants don’t allow the language barrier to keep them from getting information about the parties and candidates in order to vote on October 30.

Resources for English speakers include Kol Oleh’s events in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and more in-depth information in English about the main parties on its website. The Times of Israel has also published a brief introduction to mayoral candidates in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

“Voting is why we moved here, this is why we made aliyah: we want to be part of the process,” said Schonwald. “We care so deeply about this country and what happens to it, and this is the only way to exercise this ability to influence what happens here.”

Israeli voters can find their poll location on this website (Hebrew).

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