Zaatry Relinquishes Post as Haifa Deputy Mayor; To Be Replaced by Arab-Palestinian Women Activist

Haifa council member-elect Raja Zaatry, who has been the target of far-right government pressures to block his appointment as deputy mayor for weeks, withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday, December 12. In a press conference held in the northern city, Zaatry told those assembled that he has no intention of apologizing for his views, but said Hadash had decided to appoint in his stead a fellow city council member, Shahira Shalbi, who will thereby become the first Arab-Palestinian woman to ever serve as a deputy mayor in Israel.

Hadash Haifa city council members Raja Za'atra and Shaira Shalabi at Wednesday's press conference

Hadash Haifa city council members Raja Za’atra and Shaira Shalabi at Wednesday’s press conference (Screenshot: Channel 1 News)

Following Zaatry’s announcement Shalabi said: “I respect Haifa’s residents: a city has retained its sanity; one that opposes incitement and racism. The Israeli public wants us. I am pleased to be Kalish-Rotem’s partner.” According to the coalition agreement, Shalabi will serve as a deputy mayor during the second half of the new mayor’s term. Rabbi Dov Haiyun (Meretz) will serve the first half of the term. Haiyun’s appointment was part of a coalition agreement signed between Mayor Kalisch-Rotem’s Labor Party faction and Zaatry’s Hadash faction in the city council.

For his part, Rabbi Haiyun said:  “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 added, “I’m proud of my party, I’m proud of my path,” 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.”

Raja Zaatry, 40, who was at the center of the controversy for weeks, has been a political figure since he was an activist in the Communist Young League of Israel, serving as a local and national student leader in high school and when at university. He is a leading member of the Hadash front and spokesperson of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an umbrella body of Arab civil society organizations. He took part in the establishment of the Joint List in the months leading up to the 2015 general elections.

At his Wednesday press conference, Zaatry insisted his party was misunderstood. The Communist Party of Israel, he said, “believes in equality and the right of both nations to live in dignity and freedom, and to lead normal lives. That is 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 [Kalish-Rotem’s] 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 put us beyond the pale of legitimacy. I appreciate her courage and believe we will continue to have a brave and real partnership.” In response to Za’atry’s announcement, Kalisch-Rotem said in a statement Wednesday, “Historically, the Arab public was part of the leadership of Haifa, and it will continue to be so in our time. The personal war against Zaatry has ended. I won’t let the local Likud representatives, who are angry they didn’t get government jobs, wage war against the Arab population of Haifa.”

Earlier this week, Zaatry shrugged off the criticism hurled against him and fired back at Netanyahu and Deri. “I do not support Hamas. I am a Communist,” he tells Al-Monitor website. “From an ideological standpoint, political Islam is no less of an enemy than Zionism, in the sense that I perceive it as racist. I took part in a panel and someone shouted at me, ‘Say Hamas is a terror organization,’ and I said ‘Hamas is a political movement, a popular resistance movement that also contains elements of terrorism.'”

“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 issued on Sunday of this week. “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,” Zaatry added, a reference to the Jerusalem address of 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,” he said then, three days before withdrawing his candidacy.

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. Hadash MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) accused Netanyahu of participating in a “racist and violent campaign led by the extreme right, one which recalls dangerous incitement against minorities in 20th century Europe. Arabs in Haifa deserve meaningful representation in the city council,” said Jabareen. “Leave Haifa, which promotes coexistence, alone.”