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Gay Candidate Nitzan Horowitz Seeks To Shake Up Tel Aviv Mayor Contest

To Nitzan Horowitz, Tel Aviv-Jaffa embodies equality and openness — but only for those who can afford to live there.

In many ways, he says, his city is a beacon of tolerance. After all, a significant part of it — the exact figure will become clear only on election day, October 22 — is backing him in his mayoral bid, which could make him the first openly gay mayor in the Middle East.

But two years after outrage at the cost of housing in Tel Aviv sparked mass demonstration against the cost-of-living in Israel, rents in the country’s premier city are no cheaper. In Horowitz’s reading, this makes Tel Aviv a liberal environment that, increasingly, only the well-heeled can afford to enjoy. Buying or renting a flat in Tel Aviv has become “science fiction” for many Israelis, he complained.

Horowitz, a onetime journalist, is a candidate for the left-wing Meretz party, which he currently represents in the Knesset. As mayor, he claims, he can go a long way toward solving the problem during a single term in office, by using municipal powers to build large public housing projects.

“It’s rather easy, because we have a precedent,” he commented during an interview with the Forward, arguing that Israel’s history attests to the ability of authorities, rather than the private sector, to take the lead on housing.

He said: “It used to be called Zionism in this country. It used to help us absorb waves of immigrants coming from all over the world for many years, meaning that the authorities, whether the government or the city or other public authorities, used to build houses and apartments.”

Horowitz points his finger at the municipality for the spiraling house prices in Tel Aviv. There is enough public land to institute large public housing projects, he argued, for both rental and affordable purchase. “It is the main and basic duty of the local authority to allocate housing solutions to the public,” he said.

If Horowitz gets to execute his plans, he is likely to clash with right-wing groups. Discussing Jaffa, the stronghold of the local Arab population but increasingly home to gentrified predominantly Jewish housing projects, he said that he foresees some of the public housing for the locale designated as Arab-only. The legal rationalization for this — preference along ethnic lines is prohibited in almost all Israeli housing — would be addressed should the time come, he said, declining to discuss the subject further.

Horowitz is going up against a mayor so well established that many young Tel Avivians can remember no other. Ron Huldai, the candidate for One Tel Aviv, has been in office for 15 years and is credited with regenerating large parts of the city, eliminating the municipal deficit, attracting young residents to Tel Aviv and overhauling the educational system.

Huldai’s campaign manager, Danny Borowitz, told the Forward that he has “transformed a deteriorating city on the verge of bankruptcy into the nation’s center of high tech and innovation, art and culture, economic activity, Jewish renewal, tolerance and pluralism, night life and entertainment.”

Huldai’s supporters accuse Horowitz of trying to score political points on the issue of housing without having the facts to back up his positions. They say that Horowitz is overstating the amount of municipal land available for residential development. And they point out that Huldai is already making some efforts to promote affordable housing. There is currently one city-run development under construction, a program giving rent scholarships for students, another private initiative to build more small apartments in the city and a program to build more student dormitories.

Horowitz hopes that he’ll be seen as a breath of fresh air — especially to the tens of thousands of Tel Avivians who were galvanized by the social protests. Yet Daphne Leef, the activist who started the 2012 protests and led them during their peak, isn’t swayed by him. She spoke to the Forward about her “cynicism towards promises” and said that she has little faith in the plans being discussed.

Tel Aviv’s housing situation is inextricably connected to the issue of asylum seekers. Large parts of the south of the city have become unattractive to Israeli citizens as they are now dominated by asylum seekers from Africa, more than 50,000 of whom have entered Israel illegally since 2005. Horowitz has a proposal to solve the social and economic problems caused by the concentration of asylum seekers and to regenerate the south of the city.

He sees it as counterintuitive that Israel imports foreign workers for short-term work while asylum seekers reside in Israel without the right to work legally. “If workers are needed for agriculture construction, they should take those asylum seekers from South Tel Aviv and put them to work… the pressure will disappear from South Tel Aviv,” he said.

Huldai also favors allowing asylum seekers to work legally — but he has not stated that they should replace other foreign workers.

Horowitz plans to lobby the national government for the changes in statute and policy necessary to facilitate his plan if he is elected mayor. It would require decisions by the treasury, the Ministry of Trade and Labor, and the Ministry of the Interior.

The right-wing activist and former Knesset member Yaakov Katz, one of the leading voices decrying the asylum seeker presence in Tel Aviv, said of Horowitz’s plan, “I don’t think it’s practical”; however, Sigal Rozen, public activities coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group for asylum seekers, praised Horowitz for coming up with a “perfect solution.”

Horowitz, 48, lives in Tel Aviv with his theater-director partner and his dog in an arrangement that he referred to as a “gay cliché” in a June interview with Haaretz.

He isn’t a Tel Avivian by birth, having grown up in Rishon LeZion, but he moved there 30 years ago and says part of the uniqueness of the city is that residents quickly feel like it becomes part of their identity. He is a well-known figure — not just from the mayoral race, but also from his two-decade career in print and television media, and from his political career since 2009, when he was first elected to the Knesset. He asked a Forward reporter to meet him at a cafe, where he is a familiar face to staff and to many customers.

On his sexual identity, he said that he’s not standing on a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender platform, but he does hope to advance the community’s concerns — for example, in schools. “Kids are not exposed to educational programs on LGBT [and] sexual orientation based [education],” he said. “When I’m mayor, by all means I’m going to open up the entire school system in Tel Aviv… to tolerant educational programs.”

Etai Pinkas, chairman of Tel Aviv’s LGBT Pride Center, said that the LGBT community is facing a “serious dilemma” — but an enviable one. Pinkas, who is standing with Horowitz’s Meretz party for council and who is also close to Huldai, whom he used to advise on LGBT issues, said, “It’s an interesting race between a mayor considered to be gay friendly and someone who’s a leader in the LGBT community.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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