Arab mayor vs. Arab legislator: Conflict of interests?
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Arab mayor vs. Arab legislator: Conflict of interests?

Nazareth Mayor Ali Sallam’s attack on MK Ayman Odeh seemed like a clash between pragmatism and belligerency. But there’s more here than meets the eye

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Members of the "Joint Arab List" meet with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the president's house in Jerusalem, March 22, 2015 [Yonatan Sindel/Flash90]
Members of the "Joint Arab List" meet with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the president's house in Jerusalem, March 22, 2015 [Yonatan Sindel/Flash90]

Most Israelis watching Nazareth Mayor ِAli Salam interrupt a live Channel 2 interview with Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh on Sunday, lambasting him for “destroying the city” by scaring away Jewish visitors, interpreted the incident as a clash between a pragmatic, moderate local Arab leadership and an uncompromising, extremist national one.

Salam’s subsequent interview on Army Radio, in which he blasted Arab Knesset members for “destroying our future” and “destroying coexistence” between Arabs and Jews in Israel, contributed to that impression.

Indeed, upticks in Palestinian-Israeli violence have often sparked internal debate between Arab Israeli leaders on how best to react, often pitting mayors — whose prime concern is the financial and general well-being of their citizens — against typically ideological parliamentarians.

But as Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority gears up for a nationwide strike on Tuesday, community leaders and lawmakers told The Times of Israel that the gap between the national and regional Arab leaderships on the best current strategy has narrowed to almost nil.

“The decision to strike was adopted unanimously yesterday by the High Follow-Up Committee [for Arab Citizens in Israel], which I think says a lot,” said MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who hails from Odeh’s socialist Hadash faction. “It includes representatives from local authorities, who were present at the meeting… the decision to strike won total support.

“Tomorrow we’ll see if the strike is indeed supported by the Arab public,” she added. “It’s true that the job of heads of regional councils is to take care of the daily life of the public, while we MKs lead on political matters, but the secret to success in our public struggles as Arabs so far lies in coordination between both sides. Such coordination always existed, to varying degrees.”

Touma-Sliman criticized Mayor Salam’s televised attack on Odeh, saying his grievances should have been aired more respectfully.

Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman in the Knesset, June 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman in the Knesset, June 3, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The man harangued [Odeh],” she said. “It was the least respectable way to convey a message. That rant represents him alone.”

Riad Kabha — director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva and former head of the Basma Local Council southeast of Haifa — said that Salem’s motives in attacking Odeh were far from purely ideological. Animosity between the two dates back to the Nazareth municipal elections two years ago, when Salam and his Nasirati party ran against incumbent Ramez Jaraisy, a member of Odeh’s Hadash party.

“Tension still exists between them,” Kabha said. “[Hadash] remains in the opposition [in Nazareth], and when they organized a demonstration on Saturday they did not invite Nasirati or the mayor Ali Salam.”

Nazareth mayor Ali Salam appears at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 30, 2014 Flash90
Nazareth mayor Ali Salam appears at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 30, 2014 (Flash90)

According to Kabha, Arab mayors and municipal leaders have not voiced a clear position against the recent wave of violence — as they had last summer during Operation Protective Edge — because “they cannot oppose the protest when it concerns al-Aqsa.”

The al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem’s Old City, “has united everyone in protest,” he said, noting that Arab mayors were more forceful last summer in preventing demonstrations from blocking main roads and vandalizing public property. “[This time] they can’t stand against the youngsters blocking roads and throwing stones. Al-Aqsa is a very sensitive issue.”

The purported danger to the mosque featured prominently in the communique issued Sunday by the High Follow-Up Committee — the umbrella organization of Arab Israelis — ahead of the general strike and mass protest scheduled for Tuesday.

‘Al-Aqsa has united everyone in protest’

“The High Follow-Up Committee condemns the unprecedented escalation and the racist policies of the occupation government, led by a group of obsessed extremists. It condemns the ongoing attempts to divide the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque in time and space.”

The Israeli government has repeatedly denied any intention of changing the status quo at the Temple Mount, which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque and is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam. Under current regulations, Jews may visit the site at certain hours but not pray there.

But for MK Touma-Sliman, a Christian from Acre, Tuesday’s strike is much more about the deterioration in the Arab sense of personal safety in recent days than about the sanctity of al-Aqsa.

“The Arab population clearly supports a respectable struggle for personal safety,” she said. “In recent days this sense of security was harmed by assaults by Jewish racists against Arabs. More importantly, however, the police and the prime minister [sic] are calling on citizens to carry weapons, which can pose a real danger to the lives of Arab individuals.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has called upon citizens with gun licenses to bear arms.

Members of the Hadash party in the Joint Arab List demonstrate against the government in Nazareth, October 10, 2015 Basel Awidat/Flash90
Members of the Hadash party in the Joint Arab List demonstrate against the government in Nazareth, October 10, 2015 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Even if Arab citizens do not, by and large, fear for their lives on Israel’s Jewish streets, many are now reporting a spike in racial assaults in recent days. Kabha, the former local council head, said he met a group of Arab day laborers Monday morning returning early from work at a construction site in Zichron Yaakov.

“I asked them, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘Every school student who passed by us threw a stone and cursed. So why should we stay and work?’ The situation is really uncomfortable for both sides.”

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