June 3, 1999
Ehud Barak’s Kind of Town
The prime minister-elect wrangles with the powerful Sephardic fervently Orthodox party
When incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak needs to talk things over with Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the military chief of staff, he won't have to go far: Mofaz lives 12 houses away from him in the town of Kochav Yair.
And when Barak or Mofaz need to talk to the military's number two man, Gen. Uzi Dayan, that, too, will be easy because Dayan also lives in Kochav Yair, a town of 5,500 people in the central part of the country, right next to the West Bank.
From his one-story, red-tile-roofed house on HaVered Street, Barak should hardly need a telephone to do a day's work. Danny Yatom, his new "political-military liaison" and the former Mossad chief, also lives a short stroll away. So does Doron Cohen, Barak's brother-in-law and closest political confidant. If Barak needs to straighten out some Knesset business with the Likud, he's got Knesset Members Michael Eitan and Gideon Ezra for neighbors.
The list of Kochav Yair VIPs goes on: Political operator and former Shin Bet higher-up Yossi Ginossar lives here. Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo (an incoming Center Party Knesset member) each bought houses in town, but their mayoral elections in 1993 kept them from moving in.
There has always been a debate over which city, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, is Israel's true center of power. With Barak's election, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can both move over; the center of power has shifted to Kochav Yair.
Israel's prime minister-elect lives in a spotless, rigidly planned, green, gorgeous, upper-middle-class town. Kochav Yair should not be compared to Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope, Ark., or Jimmy Carter's in Plains, Ga. Barak's election didn't put Kochav Yair on the map; it was there already. People here are used to living with leading national figures. Ask them how they feel about living in the same town as the prime minister, and they answer, "There's no difference."
"There were guards on Barak's street when he was military chief of staff, and when he was opposition leader. Now there are a few more. There are guards at Mofaz's house. It's no big deal," says the owner of the town's stationery store.
"People feel honored that the prime minister lives here, but it's going to have a minimal effect on their lives," says local council head Yonatan Rimon.
Walking through the commercial center last Friday, Rimon sees a woman who's heading across the grass toward the parking lot; she's carrying shopping bags. "Look, there's Mrs. [Orit] Mofaz," he says. The neighbors commonly see Gen. Mofaz walking to the country club in his shorts and thongs.
Until Barak became prohibitively busy in recent weeks, he could frequently be seen, accompanied by bodyguards, walking the streets for exercise late at night. "People might smile at the famous people and say hi, but that's about it. Everybody respects people's privacy around here, and they try to keep a low profile," says Rimon.
What is it about Kochav Yair that attracts such a concentration of high mucky mucks? Does it have state-of-the-art underground bunkers in case of nuclear attack? Or is this maybe where Israel's next generation of leaders is being cloned?
Actually, anybody can buy a house in Kochav Yair -- if they have about $300,000 to $500,000, and if anybody is selling, which few people are. There are some 1,150 houses here, and there are no more to come. The town has grown as big as the residents want it to grow, says Rimon.
The roster of political and military celebrities is a little misleading; they didn't move here after they'd made it big, as do movie stars who buy homes in Beverly Hills. Some were fairly well-known when they moved in; Barak was a general when he came here with the first 550 home-buyers in 1986, and Eitan, Kochav Yair's "founding father," was a Knesset member. But, for the most part, the stars of Kochav Yair -- kochav, incidentally, means "star" in Hebrew -- became national household names only after they'd become local householders.
"People came to this place because it had Zionist settlement value, but also because it was commuter distance from the center of the country, and it offered a high quality of life at an affordable price," says Rimon.
At the entrance to HaVered, a couple of armed security guards stand under a blue canopy that's shading them from the sun. A paparazzo sits on the curb across the street in hope of catching Barak or his wife, Nava, being driven away. The guards won't let us even enter the street to look at the house. The prime minister-elect will be spending his weeks at his official residence in Jerusalem, but most of his weekends at home in Kochav Yair, says Rimon.
Rimon says we shouldn't be too disappointed at not getting a look at Barak's house. "It looks like just about every other one here," he says. All the houses have red-tile roofs, and exteriors of white or beige stucco, except for a couple of subversives who've painted theirs in the currently popular desert yellow.
Where else would a career military man turned politician, a planner, a details man, a control freak, want to live in Israel? Obviously, Kochav Yair is Ehud Barak's kind of town.
But while it is precise and immaculate, the town is by no means soulless. Kochav Yair is stuffed to bursting with nature -- trees and bushes, and white and pink flowers blooming out of huge gardens, covering walls and fences, tufting, it seems, out of every unpaved spot. While the town's precision planning seems to fit Barak's personality, its social makeup suits his stated political goal: to bring all different kinds of Israelis together. There is no segregation in Kochav Yair -- the religious live next to the secular, the military next to the civilian, immigrants next to veterans, Likudniks next to ex-kibbutzniks such as Barak.
Says Shosh Shika, the town archivist: "We're a community of equals here, generals and privates alike. Nava waits in line just like me; nobody treats her specially."
It's a great life, says the stationery-store owner. A Garden of Eden, says Shika. About the only problem anybody can think of is the rush-hour traffic to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. "It's hard leaving for work in the morning, but it's wonderful when you get home," says Shika. No doubt there will be weekends when Kochav Yair's brightest star will find himself thinking the same thing.