Newly-elected Gush Etzion Regional Council Head, Shlomo Neeman, who made aliyah from Russia in 1990 and resides in Carmei Tzur (between Gush Etzion Junction and Hevron) studied in the Har Etzion yeshiva and holds a degree in education from Herzog College – both located in Gush Etzion. He has held positions at the Jewish Agency for Israel, a private investment company and served as chief advisor for the Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, MK Ze'ev Elkin.
Arutz Sheva interviewed Ne'eman in Hebrew, but has translated the interview, in light of the significant number of English-speakers among the 22,000 residents of Gush Etzion (not including Efrat, which has its own Municipal Council and mayor) and the interest the region has for readers worldwide.
A7: Are you willing to share your feelings with us a bit, yours and those of your family, now that you are at the helm of the Gush Etzion Regional Council?
Well, it is a rather complicated question to answer and can be divided into two parts: First, I want to explain that I ran for the post after I decided that I wanted the challenge and after I asked about what it entails, checked, learned, analyzed and understood what is expected of a council head. In other words, once I thought of running, once I decided that I hoped to be the next council head, I didn't wait till I was elected to understand all the implications.
Only then did I begin the second part, that is, my campaign. I also had to find out how this position would affect the rest of my business affairs.
All this happened about two months ago – very close to the elections.
My family? We are Shlomo and Shlomit, we have been married for 25 years and have 5 children. One daughter is married and has two children, one daughter just finished the IDF, one son is about to enlist, one is in high school, and we have a daughter in 3rd grade. My wife teaches here and the children all went to school in Gush Etzion. The family is used to my coming up with new initiatives, new challenges. We had just finished a project involving the family and my children asked what the next project was going to be. Then came the campaign and the children realized that this was the next challenge. And we met this challenge together.
A7: What are your plans?
I have a good deal of learning to do. Luckily, there are wonderful employees and terrific people working for the Council. However, it is a complex entity and I have to begin humbly, with a desire to study and learn, as I did in my previous positions.
What are our priorities?
That will of course be a derivative of my learning process within the next few weeks. But beyond that, there are things that can be said now, truths I talked about in the campaign.
The issue of protecting state lands cannot be put off because encroachment of these lands is ongoing and must be reversed. If, let's say, we have 1000 dunams of state land (250 acres, ed.) and do nothing about it, by next year there will only be 995 dunams to fight for. Whatever we don't do today will lead to a real and measurable loss for Gush Etzion.
What do I mean? There is a war being fought against us, it is not a matter of a few pitiful-looking Arab peasants who are photographed holding the olive saplings they wish to plant. This is a well-planned European Union and Palestinian Authority effort, the two are totally coordinated, with the EU collecting money to invest [in planting or building illegal structures] and stealing our land.
Can they be stopped? Of course.
When they do something illegal on state land, we have to deal with it immediately, the way we do when someone runs through a red light. I see this as a Zionist cause, but also as something which if not done, causes us to sustain a loss.
There are many other things to do, but one important one is that we must invest in improving public transportation between our communities and provide our residents with a way to reach the area where the Regional Council offices, community center and other services are located. We must connect people who live in small communities with one another for social reasons, and connect them to us as well, so that they can benefit from the services we provide. At present, most of the people in the Regional Council cannot reach the community center because of the lack of transportation. Those from Har Gilo, Ibei Hanachal and Kfar Eldad - how do we make everything available to them?
A7: How do you see the relationship with the United States, the change in the White House?
There is no doubt that Obama caused a great deal of damage to construction in Israel in general and to Gush Etzion in particular. Can this be changed? Can we say we are going to build no matter what?
This is a situation that needs analysis. There is no question that Obama did not allow the citizens of this country to make decisions about their own future. They voted for a certain prime minister, chose their leaders, made decisions and a foreign nation – and it makes no difference that it is a friendly one – felt that it could make those decisions for us. The largest democracy in the world, the country that protects other democracies, did the most undemocratic thing possible. They came to us, another nation, and made decisions for us. However, this is a given. It is undeniable. That's the way it is and we have to figure out how to deal with it. We have to find a way to change things.
After all, building is as basic as air. Children are born, they grow up. I have a young daughter but also a married couple and they cannot live near me because of the construction freeze. In the same way that I have the right to buy bread and milk in the morning I deserve to have the basic right for my children to live near me if they so wish. It is, of course, not only Obama who is responsible for this situation and I also imagine that there are solutions we can suggest. This is something I intend to fight.
A7: What about terrorists? Gush Etzion has been the scene of murderous terror. How has that affected its economic development?
This, too, is a given. The business situation in the Gush is not flourishing as much as we would like it to be, not healthy enough, not developed enough, in my opinion. As a consumer I have been observing the situation closely. There are givens in every business and in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, you have to take the very real possibility of surprises into account when making your business plan: a road that is closed, a terror attack, a car accident, because here there are no alternative roads. The Arab population here also has to be taken into account as part of the business plan.
A7: Did the public lose faith in the Council?
The percentage of residents who came out to vote was more or less like the rest of the country's elections, about 50%.
We had a leadership crisis (the previous Council head resigned and that's why there are elections in midterm, ed.), but I think we have to realize that a leadership crisis can happen everywhere. If everyone sees only himself and doesn't feel a connect with the rest of the community, that is a problem.
I am originally an educator and I feel that it's not as bad as people like to make it out to be. We have to work hard to restore confidence and faith in leaders. It's a worldwide problem. I think that by making the effort to talk to people and by being willing to accept responsibility, you can instill confidence. The voters gave me a chance to take the responsibility for running Gush Etzion on my shoulders and I am going to do just that.
I intend to be a leader. That means doing what the voters want, but also sometimes having to say some things are not possible, that we have to put some things off because they might damage something else. The main thing is transparency, inspiring confidence, being with the people through thick and thin, when things go well and if they do not.
My door is open, everything is transparent. But I am expected to lead and I am going to lead. The voters chose me and if they change their minds they will vote me out and choose someone else next time. Meanwhile, they expect me to lead.
You know, my wife doesn't like the publicity, the exposure. I don't either, but I hope the amount of publicity will go down dramatically. Because what I like to do is work.
A7: Thank you for your time.Good luck and best wishes from Arutz Sheva!
Interview conducted in Hebrew by Eliran Aharon, translation by Rochel Sylvetsky