An Arab politician in Haifa announced Wednesday he would not serve as the city’s deputy mayor, after protests over his past comments that appeared to offer support to Palestinian terrorist groups.
Arab Joint List council member Raja Za’atara, a member of the Communist Party of Israel, was to serve as deputy mayor of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for the second half of newly elected Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem’s five-year term.
He has been criticized in recent years for openly supporting Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies in the Syrian civil war, declaring that Hezbollah and Hamas were not terrorist organizations, backing an international boycott of Israel and appearing to claim in an interview that Zionism inspired the creation of the Islamic State terror group.
His appointment was part of a coalition agreement signed between Mayor Kalisch-Rotem’s Labor Party faction and Za’atara’s Joint List faction in the city council.
Kalisch Rotem had insisted on appointing Za’atara, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and others had sought to thwart the move.
In a press conference Wednesday, Za’atara announced he “will not apologize for my views,” but said his party had decided to appoint fellow city council member Shahira Shalbi as deputy mayor in his stead.
“Einat Kalisch-Rotem is standing up bravely to the threats of a mafia. Threats to withhold government budgets from Haifa are the actions of a mafia,” he said.
“I’m proud of my party, I’m proud of my path,” he added, rejecting claims by right-wing politicians that his two-seat council faction was a de facto representative of Hamas or Hezbollah.
” I don’t support terror. I am against terror,” he said.
“We didn’t come to the Haifa Municipality through a Hezbollah tunnel or on a Hamas rocket. We’re here thanks to 6,715 votes” by Haifa residents in the October municipal election.
Home to both Jews and Arabs, Haifa has zealously sought to protect its reputation as a model for coexistence in Israel.
Za’atara, 40, has been a political figure since he was a teenager, serving as a local and national student leader in high school and university.
He is a member of the Hadash political party and the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an umbrella body of Israeli Arab civil society organizations, and he took part in the establishment of the Joint List alliance of Arab parties ahead of the 2015 elections.
While serving as the Joint List’s head of public relations during the 2015 Knesset election campaign, Za’atara claimed that Hamas was not a terrorist organization.
In 2016, Za’atara defended Hezbollah after the Arab League declared it a terrorist group. He said that the Lebanese jihadist organization and political party wasn’t a terror group but a “resistance movement that succeeded in expelling the occupier,” a reference to the Israeli military presence in south Lebanon until 2000.
In 2012, he founded an organization supportive of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, aimed at promoting the idea of a boycott of the Jewish state among Arab Israelis.
Following media reports about Za’atara’s impending appointment, Deri, whose Interior Ministry has some oversight powers over Israeli municipal government, sought to thwart the move.
“Raja Za’atara, a member of the Haifa city council, expressed his support for Hezbollah and Hamas, supported the boycott of Israel and expressed support for activity against Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Such a person cannot be appointed deputy mayor as is requested by the Haifa municipality.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called on Kalisch-Rotem to abandon her plan to appoint a deputy who voiced “support” for Hamas and Hezbollah.
At the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: “This morning before the meeting I reached out to Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch to request that she cancel the appointment of a deputy mayor who supports Hamas and Hezbollah, which declare their intention to destroy the State of Israel. I hope that request is heeded.”
“This is unacceptable, and since it is unacceptable it won’t happen, I am convinced of that,” Netanyahu said of the appointment.
However, Kalisch-Rotem’s associates later said she had rejected Netanyahu’s request during the phone call, noting that she had no intention to renege on her coalition agreement with Za’atara’s party and adding that he was only due to become deputy mayor in two and a half years.
At his Wednesday press conference, Za’atara insisted his party was misunderstood. The Israeli Communist Party, he said, “believes in equality and the right of both nations to live in dignity and freedom, and to have normal lives. That’s all we ask. I oppose all terror and all attacks against innocents: Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Chinese, French or Americans.”
He added: “I want to tell Einat that she’s a brave leader who can bring change. I know the pressures that were brought to bear on her to kick us out of the coalition and beyond the boundaries of legitimacy. I appreciate her courage and believe we will continue to have a brave and real partnership.”
In response to Za’atara’s announcement, Kalisch-Rotem said in a statement Wednesday that “the Arab public was historically, and will continue to be in our time, part of the leadership of Haifa. The personal war on Za’atara has ended. I won’t let the local Likud representatives, who are angry they didn’t get government jobs, wage war on the Arab population of Haifa.”
Earlier this week, Za’atara shrugged off the criticism and fired back at Netanyahu and Deri.
“I am not a member of Hamas or Hezbollah, but of the Communist Party of Israel and Hadash which support peace, equality and fraternity between nations,” he said in a statement Sunday. “Netanyahu and his corrupt government are trying to divert public attention. The real danger to Israel isn’t in the Haifa council, but at No. 10 Balfour Street in Jerusalem,” Za’atara added, a reference to the Jerusalem street housing the Prime Minister’s Residence. “By the time I’m deputy [in 2021], it is plausible that Netanyahu and Deri will already be in prison.”
Police have recommended in recent months that both Netanyahu and Deri stand trial for offenses that include bribery — the prime minister in three cases, and Deri in a separate case — and both are awaiting a decision by Mandelblit whether to indict them. Both deny any wrongdoing.
MK Yousef Jabareen accused Netanyahu of participating in a “racist and violent campaign by the extreme right, which recalls dangerous incitement against minorities in 20th century Europe. Arabs in Haifa deserve meaningful representation in the city council. Leave Haifa, which promotes coexistence, alone.”