Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called on the newly elected mayor of Haifa, Einat Kalisch-Rotem, to abandon her plan to appoint a deputy who voiced support for terror organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, backed BDS and claimed Zionism inspired the creation of the Islamic State terror group.
Public outrage erupted last week as reports came out of the upcoming appointment of Joint (Arab) List council member Raja Za’atara, a member of the Communist Party of Israel, which has been criticized by many in recent years for supporting Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies in the Syrian civil war.
At the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: “This morning before the meeting I sought 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.”
The reports cited past statements by Za’atara, 40, who 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, and he was the manager of the newly formed Joint List alliance of Arab parties in the 2015 elections.
Za’atara, who is set to serve as deputy mayor during the second half of the mayoral term, had insinuated in an interview that the Islamic State terror group had been inspired by acts committed by Zionists, and while he served as the Joint List’s head of public relations during the 2015 election campaign had 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” in the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Israel.
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 the reports, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri sought to thwart the appointment. “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.”
The ministry’s legal adviser on Saturday night said Za’atara denied some of the claims made about him, and Deri subsequently ordered a probe to clarify the facts.
Following that probe, Deri will ask Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to rule whether he has the authority to block Za’atara’s state salary if he is appointed deputy mayor.
“I am happy that our colleague Aryeh Deri already began taking care of the matter, and I know that many others have voiced their opinions on it,” Netanyahu said in his public remarks, referring to politicians from the right and center that have slammed the intended appointment.
“This is unacceptable, and since it is unacceptable it won’t happen, I am convinced of that,” the prime minister concluded.
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 is only due to become deputy mayor in two and a half years.
Za’atara himself responded by firing 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. “Netanyahu and his corrupt government are trying to divert public attention.”
The real danger to the Israeli nation isn’t in the Haifa council, but at No. 10 Balfour Street in Jerusaem,” Za’atara added, referring to the address of the Prime Minister’s Office. “When I’m deputy, 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.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.