New Haifa Mayor's Nomination of Arab Deputy Stirs National C...

New Haifa Mayor's Nomination of Arab Deputy Stirs National Controversy

December 28, 2018

In early December, controversy surrounded the newly elected mayor of Haifa, Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem, over the coalition agreement she signed with the Haifa Front (the local Jewish-Arab party associated with Hadash), and her appointment of its local head, Arab attorney Adv. Raja Za’atara, (previously a spokesman for the Joint List) as deputy mayor for the second half of the term.

Local groups and national politicians criticized the appointment because of Za’atara’s past controversial statements about Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS, and his ideological platform described by opponents as contrary to Haifa’s model of coexistence. Critics also pointed to the mayor’s decision to partner with Hadash but leave the local Likud party outside the local coalition altogether (Hebrew). Prime Minister Netanyahu personally called Kalisch-Rotem to press her to reverse course on the appointment.

Supporters of the mayor’s decision cited the importance of this political partnership for continued shared society in Haifa (Hebrew) and voiced suspicions that opponents tapped into divisive discourse around Jewish-Arab relations for political gain. The high profile of this controversy has pushed Jewish-Arab local political relations into the national spotlight.

On December 12, Za’atara stepped down while the agreement with the local party remains intact. Shahira Shalabi, second on the local Hadash party’s list, took his place and will be the first Arab woman to serve as a deputy mayor of any Israeli municipality. The controversy continues, however, and shows signs of potentially affecting cooperation between Haifa’s municipal administration and the national government.

The reaction to Haifa’s coalition agreement comes against the longstanding backdrop of Jewish-Arab political cooperation in the city, where over the past 25 years an Arab official has served as deputy mayor for at least a portion of every municipal term. It also comes after measured increases in Jewish-Arab cooperation in other mixed cities following the recent municipal elections in which Arab and Jewish-Arab party representatives gained in number of council seats.

Prior to this controversy, The Abraham Initiatives’ Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu wrote about the Haifa coalition agreement as a peak in a wave of Jewish-Arab coalitions forming in mixed cities (Lod, Ramle, Acre and Nazareth Illit) following the October municipal elections. Whether the controversy over the mayor’s appointment of a deputy is unrelated to this this trend, or a response to it, remains to be seen.

The developments leading up to Za’atara’s appointment and details of the ensuing controversy are collected and outlined below:

Haifa Deputy Mayor Appointment

Einat Kalisch-Rotem of the Living in Haifa Party (associated with Labor) upset Haifa’s incumbent mayor of 15 years, Yona Yahav, to become the first woman mayor of Israel’s third-largest city. Haifa has about 280,000 residents, of which 11 to 12 percent are Arab and has a long history of Jewish-Arab cooperation, both on the grassroots level and in local politics.

The beginning of each administration involves establishing coalition agreements with various local parties. After negotiations with local factions, Kalisch-Rotem eventually signed coalition agreements with Jewish Home, Israel Beitenu and Hadash, and decided to divide the deputy mayor term between Meretz council member Rabbi Dov Hayun and Za’atara, who holds the top position in the Haifa Front (Hadash party) list. This is despite demands by the Likud party for a term as deputy mayor as a condition of joining the municipal coalition.

The coalition agreement stipulated that Za’atara would be appointed Deputy Mayor during the second half of the term. In the agreement, both sides promise "to act to reinforce coexistence in Haifa, based on full equality in all spheres of life, mutual respect and tolerance, and respect for freedom of expression…to repelling any racist discourse and to condemning any element that advocates racism against any group of residents, without distinction of nationality, religion, race, color or gender, and including against Arab residents." (Hebrew).

The Haifa Front won two seats in the 31-seat city council and was the only Arab party that received enough votes to gain council seats.

Criticism of Appointment

Critics of the appointment cited remarks that Za’atara made while on a panel at Bar Ilan University in 2015. "Where do you think Daesh (Islamic State) learned these things?" he said, and then continued with: "Look for what the Zionist movement did in 1948. The rape, the looting, the murder... the exact same things." During that same panel, Za’atara said that Hamas was not a terror organization. In 2016, Za’atara said that Hezbollah was not a terror group but a “resistance movement that succeeded in expelling the occupier.”

Protest of Za’atara’s appointment started with the local Likud faction in Haifa (Hebrew) and spread to numerous national leaders all the way up to Prime Minister Netanyahu who called on Mayor Kalisch-Rotem to prevent the nomination. Minister of the Economy Eli Cohen (Kulanu) threatened to withhold additional budgets from Haifa if the nomination went through (Hebrew), and Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri (Shas) said he would examine steps to prevent the appointment. Coalition Chair MK David Amsalem (Likud) said he would promote special legislation that would prevent the nomination (Hebrew), while Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid called on the Labor Party to take steps against Mayor Kalisch-Rotem, who the party had backed in the local elections.

There was protest in Haifa as well. The local chapter of the Im Tirzu organization organized a protest campaign that it claimed resulted in approximately 20,000 emails sent to the new mayor in protest of Za’atara's appointment. Local Labor party activists and some bereaved parents also criticized the nomination of Za’atara, recalling past events in which he made incendiary statements against IDF soldiers.

Supporters of Appointment

Defending Kalisch-Rotem, Labor Party head Avi Gabay said, "She has a tough challenge to ensure shared living in the city…and anyone looking at the coalition she formed can see [this effort]," while making it clear that he condemned Za'atara's statements (Hebrew). MK Mosi Raz (Meretz) criticized Deri's statements, posting on Twitter that "Deri probably didn’t hear that in democracy there is freedom of speech.” (Hebrew) Haifa community activist Gila Livni Zamir wrote of national politicians who she believed don’t care "if Haifa residents die of pollution as long as there's no Arab deputy mayor." Numerous civil society organizations including The Abraham Initiatives and Sikkuy criticized the attempts to revoke Za’atara's nomination and praised the new Haifa mayor for her statements promoting shared society and inclusion of all of Haifa's residents.

Current Status

Despite pressures from local activists and national politicians, local heads of the Jewish Home and Israel Beitenu parties said they accepted the agreement and believe cooperation with Za'atara is possible (Hebrew). Mayor Kalisch-Rotem issued a number of statements standing by her decision, calling governmental threats "bullying" and claiming she will "not allow the guys from Jerusalem to undermine the [social] fabric of Haifa" even though she "didn’t like what Za’atara said" (Hebrew).  Za’atara published a statement that he would not rescind his past comments and Kalish-Rotem tweeted that "despite false statements in the press" she "did not give him [such] an ultimatum" to do so (Hebrew).

After several days of controversy, Za’atara announced that he would withdraw from the nomination and allow the number two on the Haifa Front list, Shahira Shalabi, to be nominated for deputy mayor instead, while he remains a council member. Za’atara denied some of the statements attributed to him, publishing an open letter in Haaretz in which he stated "I am not a Hezbollah or Hamas supporter, and for sure not a supporter of ISIS. My position and the position of my party [Hadash] is that a people under occupation has the right to resist via all legitimate means… I oppose, with all of my being, harming civilians… no matter who is the aggressor and who are the victims… This is true for Haifa and Beirut, for Gaza and for Sderot" (Hebrew).  

Ongoing Discourse and Repercussions

The storm, however did not subside, as criticism continued against the mayor's political partnership with Hadash and the new nominee Shahira Shalabi, a well-known Arab social justice activist and feminist. Shalabi will be the first Arab woman to ever hold the position of deputy mayor in a mixed Israeli city. Consequently, Kalisch-Rotem tweeted (Hebrew): "The Arab sector was throughout history, and will continue to be also in the present, part of Haifa's leadership. The personal war against Za’atara is over. I will not allow local Likud representatives, who are angry because they did not receive [political] jobs, to wage war against Haifa's Arab community."

The local Likud faction responded with a post stating: "The Likud Haifa faction views with utmost criticism the harsh, inciting and false accusations leveled by the new mayor against the local Likud party and Likud supporters…instead of working towards healing the divides created following her rash decision to appoint a Hezbollah and Hamas supporter to Deputy Mayor, she is continuing with her irresponsible policy, accusing the Likud of ‘waging war against the Arab public in Haifa’…we will fight in any way possible to prevent the Hadash movement from being part of the coalition." A few days later, 150 activists and residents organized by the Im Tirzu movement from Haifa demonstrated in front of the home of the new mayor, demanding she annul the coalition agreement with Hadash.

The repercussions to the new mayor from giving the deputy mayor post to the Haifa Front list and leaving Likud out of her coalition appear to be going beyond statements. At an important ceremony at the Port of Haifa on December 18, an historic agreement was signed between the Port Authority and the Histadrut (Israel's National Workers' Union), in the presence of Minister of Transportation Israel Katz (Likud), Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) and the Histadrut Chair Avi Nisankorn. Mayor Kalisch-Rotem was not invited to the ceremony, but Shimshon Ido, the head of the Haifa Likud party, was included. In the article, a Likud official is quoted as saying, "It is not by chance that Kalisch was not invited to the ceremony at the Port today. The Ministers of Likud will not cooperate with someone who joins forces with Hadash and shrugs off the Likud and the Prime Minister. There will be future repercussions as well."

There is also speculation that the political fallout from this episode could affect the plans to construct a new Haifa international airport (Hebrew), a priority of Kalisch-Rotem. The mayor responded in a tweet: "The reactions by the planning authorities and the government were more than to be expected. We didn’t think for a moment that all [the problems] will be solved quickly. But…how shall I say this simply? The threats of revenge against Haifa, from those in government, only strengthen my understanding just how much our city requires protection." (Hebrew)

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