Fighting community’s boycott of politics, lawyer runs to be Jerusalem’s 1st Arab mayor

Waleed Abu Tayeh, 69, believes engagement and representation are crucial to improving residents’ conditions in East Jerusalem — and the long odds do not deter him

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Jerusalem mayoral candiate Waleed Abu Tayeh during an interview with The Times of Israel at the Saint George Hotel, Jerusalem, August 17, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani / Times of Israel)
Jerusalem mayoral candiate Waleed Abu Tayeh during an interview with The Times of Israel at the Saint George Hotel, Jerusalem, August 17, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani / Times of Israel)

Waleed Abu Tayeh sat down to discuss his mayoral election campaign in the Saint George Hotel, meters from the Green Line that separates East and West Jerusalem — an apt location for a candidate who wants to be a bridge between Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents and the Israeli authorities whose sovereignty they refuse to recognize.

Today, the Green Line demarcates an invisible yet clear border between the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, with the latter in an evident state of neglect and underfunding.

Municipal elections are to be held on October 31, and Abu Tayeh hopes to make history by becoming its first Arab mayor since Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967.

Palestinians make up 40% of Jerusalem’s population, but boycotts have been their preferred political approach in defying Israel’s annexation of their neighborhoods. East Jerusalemites’ participation in municipal elections has been near nil in every race since 1967, and analysts say Abu Tayeh’s chances of unseating incumbent Moshe Lion hover around that number.

But he is unfazed by the odds.

A 69-year-old lawyer and a former accountant, the Nazareth native moved to Jerusalem to study at Hebrew University in 1979 and lives today in the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa. He announced his intention to run for mayor early last year.

“Everyone said I was going against the [Palestinian] national consensus against normalization that has been in force since 1967,” he recalled in a recent interview. “They said voting in Jerusalem’s municipal elections equals recognizing the Israeli occupation.”

“To those critics, I replied that ‘Yes, there is a national consensus, but what is more important is our national interest.’ There is a UN convention that stipulates that even a people under occupation has a right to participate in local elections and get recognition of its civil rights. Israel is a signatory to that convention.”

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Waleed Abu Tayeh (right) sitting with the number two on his electoral slate for Jerusalem City Council, Sondos Alhoot, during an interview at the Saint George Hotel in Jerusalem, August 17, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Since 1975, the 31 members of the capital’s city council and the mayor have been chosen separately, with mayors being elected in a two-round system. If no candidate receives at least 40% of the vote in the first round, a runoff election is held between the top two finishers.

Abu Tayeh is not the first Palestinian to head a slate in Jerusalem’s municipal elections, but he would be the first to do so as a candidate for mayor. The mayoral hopeful heads a list of 15 Arab candidates for city council, called Kol Toshaveha (All Its Residents).

In 1998, a local businessman named Moussa Alayan ran a slate for the city council and garnered a few thousand votes, but not enough to pass the threshold. Another attempt was made ahead of the 2018 elections by activist Aziz Abu Sarah, but he withdrew before the election after his fellow faction members received repeated threats from Palestinian nationalist elements.

The lack of political clout by East Jerusalemites in the city council has contributed to the municipality’s severe neglect of Arab neighborhoods, with a visible shortage of investments in infrastructure and services. But the main complaint, experts and residents agree, is the restricted living space, with local authorities confiscating Arab lands and granting insufficient construction permits to accommodate the demographic growth. Palestinian residents often have to resort to building without authorization and frequently see their homes demolished as a result.

“I started off writing a few articles in a Palestinian newspaper, making the case that if we want to defend our rights, we need political participation. Even if we do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over our city, the ends justify the means,” Abu Tayeh said. “At some point, I decided that instead of just calling for others to run, I should run myself.”

Aware of the Palestinian Authority’s ability to influence voter turnout in East Jerusalem, Abu Tayeh wanted to first get Ramallah on board with his campaign.

“I wrote a letter to [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] in April seeking his blessing for my candidacy. He replied that if I want to run for office, he will not stand in my way, but urged me to stay away from politics and only focus on civil rights. He told me that it’s up to us East Jerusalemites to decide how to best get our rights recognized.

“However, the head mufti of the PA issued a fatwa [Islamic legal opinion] against me and against [Palestinians] voting in the [Jerusalem municipal] elections. I told him he is entitled to his opinion, but I reminded him that the PA has ongoing security cooperation with Israel, and in other matters too. Has he issued fatwas against that?” Abu Tayeh said.

“All Jerusalem Palestinians, especially the young ones, want to vote in the local elections. But they are afraid of the PA, and they have a mental block against participating.”

An electoral poster by Jerusalem mayoral candidate Waleed Abu Tayeh, reading ‘Attorney Waleed Abu Tayeh, candidate for mayor of the Jerusalem city council — rights do not come by request alone, but by performing one’s duty.’ (Facebook,/courtesy)

“On the other hand, Israel claims it’s a democratic country when it is a democracy for Jews alone. It is not willing to share the pie with us Arabs. We don’t get our share of the resources,” Abu Tayeh said.

He estimated that the city’s Arab residents pay around NIS 2 billion ($530 million) a year in local taxes and fines, including fines for illegal construction and huge sums in parking tickets — due in part to the fact that there are hardly any parking spaces along East Jerusalem streets.

“The area of East Jerusalem is about 80 square kilometers,” Abu Tayeh said. “Its 400,000 Arab residents live on only 20 square kilometers, whereas its Jewish residents take up 60 square kilometers. In East Jerusalem, there are twice as many Arabs as Jews, but they live in one-third of the space.”

He added: “We also want equal representation in municipal decision-making bodies. There are 12,000 municipal workers — at least 4,000 should be Arabs, and they should be in positions with real responsibilities, not just cleaners.

“I wrote twice to [Mayor] Moshe Lion about this, [but] he didn’t get back to me,” Abu Tayeh continued, saying he was organizing a demonstration outside Lion’s office on August 29.

Abu Tayeh will be holding a press conference on September 6 to ceremonially launch his campaign.

He said some of the candidates on the slate had received threats from individuals with ties to the Palestinian Authority, “but we are not afraid.” In response, Marouf Alrefai, an adviser to the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem Governor, said to the Times of Israel that the candidate’s claims were “highly exaggerated,” and that neither Abu Tayeh nor people in his list received threats from anyone close to the PA.

“I have not received threats from the Jewish far right, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to kill me at some point,” Abu Tayeh added nonchalantly.

A view of the Silwan neighborhood in east Jerusalem, August 26, 2022 (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

Abu Tayeh has built a limited social media presence since going public with his political aspirations, and has been meeting with community leaders in order to lay the groundwork for his campaign.

44 years in the city

But some residents have criticized his detachment from local East Jerusalemites, due to his holding Israeli citizenship, unlike most of them, and having been born in Nazareth.

Abu Tayeh stressed that he has deep ties to the city.  “I have lived here for 44 years, I am married to a Jerusalem woman and my three children were born here. I am a Jerusalemite in every way.”

City council member Laura Wharton, who was elected with the left-wing Meretz party and is running with an independent slate in the upcoming ballot, praised Abu Tayeh’s “good intentions” and efforts to boost East Jerusalemites’ involvement in local politics. But she told The Times of Israel that he is “relatively unknown and, as an Israeli citizen, is less subject to or exposed to the troubles and daily injustices that East Jerusalemites experience.”

Hussam Mousa, 34, a Silwan native and a licensed tour guide who offers tours of East Jerusalem for Israelis, also commended Abu Tayeh’s “courage and vision” to improve living conditions in East Jerusalem. Mousa said he believed Abu Tayeh’s goal of 100,000 votes was not impossible but would require a lot of groundwork, with elections only two months away.

“He has been making connections with some influential people in the city who may be able to get out the vote in his favor,” Mousa added.

He dismissed Abu Tayeh’s Nazarene origins as an impediment: “Whoever lives with a people for 40 days, becomes one of them,” Mousa said, quoting a famous Arabic proverb. “The main obstacle is that Jerusalem Palestinians don’t vote in municipal elections because they have no trust in the Israeli authorities, the same authorities that issue orders to demolish their homes and hand out fines.

“There is also a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of East Jerusalemites as to how the Israeli system of democratic influence works,” he argued. “People here feel that the government is only intent on expelling them, and participating in its decision-making mechanisms equals normalization. It will take time and work to restore public trust in the authorities.”

Still, Mousa said, “there is visible change in the last few years. Young people increasingly learn Hebrew and work in the Israeli job market. The question is, does the Israeli side accept them? Is it willing to treat East Jerusalem as it treats the West? To put an end to the discrimination?”

Abu Tayeh is optimistic. “On election day, I estimate that we can get as many as 80,000, or even 100,000 votes,” he claimed, “including a few thousand Jewish ones.”

“I know that I will not be able to free East Jerusalem. Ideally, I would like for it to become the capital of a single [bi-national] state or to be split into two capitals for two states. But first, I want to break down the walls in people’s minds about voting,” the candidate said. “East Jerusalemites need to realize that there is no real justice for us here, and no international law to defend us. It’s a power game, and we have to play it in our interest.”

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