After Criticism Over 'Support of Terror,' Haifa's Would-be Deputy Mayor Withdraws

Netanyahu pressured the mayor to block Raja Zaatry's appointment, but she refused. Zaatry's no. 2, Shahira Shalabi, will serve as deputy mayor in his stead

Raja Zaatry and Shahira Shalbi in Haifa, December 12, 2018.
Rami Shllush

Raja Zaatry, Haifa's council member-elect who has been the target of government pressures to block his appointment as deputy mayor, withdrew his candidacy Wednesday. Instead, he has offered that his party's number two assume the position.

Zaatry – chief of Haifa's Hadash party branch – said Wednesday that he is not sorry and will not retract his past statements against Zionism and supporting the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah, which sparked the backlash against him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Haifa's mayor-elect, Einat Kalisch Rotem, on Sunday to request that she cancel Zaatry's appointment, but she refused, saying that she has no intention to break coalition agreements.

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According to a source with knowledge on the matter, Kalisch Rotem asked Zaatry to walk back some of his past remarks. In the past, Zaatry has said that Hamas and Hezbollah are not terror organizations and that their resistance to the occupation is legitimate.

Haifa municipality officials met with Zaatry this week and described the pressures mounted on them in order to cancel his appointment. In response, Zaatry offered that his number two, Shahira Shalabi, receive the appointment in his stead. He said he was thinking only of what's best for the city.

"A people that oppose the occupation have the right to resist with all legitimate means," he said Wednesday. He added that he opposes terrorism and harming innocent people on both sides, and called Netanyahu "the inciter from Balfour Street," referring to the premier's official Jerusalem residence.

The pressure applied by Netanyahu came after Interior Minister Arye Dery tweeted on Friday that he would find out whether he could legally block Zaatry's appointment.

Zaatry "has expressed support for Hezbollah and Hamas, has supported boycotts of Israel and action against Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Such a person cannot be named as a deputy mayor, as Haifa’s mayor seeks to do,” Dery tweeted.

"A government that acts like the mob, what is this thing?" Zaatry said in response to Dery and Netanyahu's pressure. "Threatening a mayor that she won't get budgets? This is a democracy?" he said.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Zaatry said that the incitement on the web made him a target. "Statements such as 'He should be seated on an electrical chair, not a deputy chair' and 'Put a bullet in his head' - even the police called me to ask me who's behind those remarks," he told Haaretz. "How should I know? If it was an Arab, they'd have found him already," he said."

Zaatry said that as a result, "I don't walk around alone."

He talked about the pressures mounted on Kalisch Rotem, saying she was told "that no minister would see her as long as she has a 'terror-backing' deputy and that she wouldn't get budgets." He said that he didn't think he had another option but to give up his appointment: "The prime minister put his entier weight behind this thing."

According to Zaatry, Kalisch Rotem and her no. 2 "were very elegant. They didn't ask me to apologize. They didn't dictate anything."

Following Zaatry's announcement Shalabi said: "I respect Haifa's residents. It's a city that has remained sane. That opposes incitement and racism. The Israeli public wants us. I am pleased to be Kalish Rotem's partner."

Zaatry was elected in October’s local elections as a member of the Haifa Front, a party linked to Hadash. According to the coalition agreement he is to serve as a deputy mayor during the second half of the new mayor’s term. Rabbi Dov Haiyun (Meretz) is to serve in the first half of the term.