Haifa's newly elected mayor refused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request on Sunday to cancel the appointment of a deputy mayor from a left-wing, pro-communist Arab-Jewish political party.
Netanyahu phoned Einat Kalisch Rotem on Sunday morning and asked her to cancel the appointment of Raja Zaatry, the chief of the Hadash party's municipal branch, claiming he supports terror organizations. The mayor replied that she has no intention to break coalition agreements.
“This morning I was looking for Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch [sic] because I wanted to ask her to cancel the appointment of a deputy mayor who supports Hezbollah and Hamas, [organizations that] declare that their goal is destroying Israel,” Netanyahu told ministers at the beginning of the cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu's request came after Interior Minister Arye Dery tweeted on Friday that he would find out whether he could legally block Zaatry's appointment.
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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.
Dery asked his ministry’s legal adviser, Yehuda Zemrat, to look into the matter, and was informed that Zaatry denied some of the claims against him. Dery then asked his ministry’s director general, Mordechai Cohen, to launch a thorough investigation and requested Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to decide whether the interior minister has the authority to block Zaatry's salary if he is appointed deputy mayor.
“I’m glad our colleague Arye Dery has already begun to deal with it and I know that many others have expressed themselves as well on this topic. This is inconceivable and therefore will not happen, I’m sure of it,” Netanyahu said on Sunday.
Zaatry told Haaretz that he intends to work for the residents of Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, and that he is a member of a party that strongly supports peace and solidarity.
“I was democratically and legally elected to the Haifa City Council. I will represent the people of the city, Arabs and Jews, for a dignified life, real partnership, social and distributive justice and integrity. I am obligated only to the people who elected me and they are the ones who will judge my actions. I intend to represent them and work for them, with or without pay, with or without the seal of approval of that knight of good governance, Arye Dery, or from Yair Lapid and those sitting in the back rows of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. I am a member neither of Hamas nor of Hezbollah, but rather of the Israeli Communist Party and the Hadash movement, which holds high the banner of peace, equality and fraternity among nations,” Zaatry said.
He added: “Netanyahu and his corrupt government are trying to divert public opinion away from the real danger to the people in Israel, which is not in the Haifa municipality, but on 10 Balfour Street in Jerusalem” referring to Netanyahu’s official residence. “When I become deputy mayor, Netanyahu and Dery will probably already be in jail,” he said.
In response to Netanyahu's remarks, MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) tweeted: "Netanyahu's lame intervention against Raja Zaatry is part of a violent, racist campaign waged by the radical right, reminiscent of the dark incitement against minorities in twentieth century Europe. Haifa's Arab residents deserve meaningful representation. Leave Haifa alone, a city that promotes a shared society as an alternative to Netanyahu's policy of hatred and incitement."
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.
Zaatry has been a political activist for years and made a number of controversial remarks in the past. In 2015, as Joint List campaign leader, he said Hamas is not a terrorist organization and that Islamic State draws inspiration from Zionism. “Where did they learn these crimes from? Look at what the Zionist movement did in 1948 – rape, plunder, and murder.” He has also expressed support in the past for Syria’s President Bashar Assad and for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The protests against his appointment began on a Haifa residents’ Facebook page; another page has been opened on the same issue at the initiative of the right-wing group Im Tirtzu. Right-wing lawmakers have also spoken out against his appointment. Likud MK Yoav Kish asked Dery to intervene, writing to him that “in recent days details of his (Zaatry’s) support for the terrorist organization Hamas have been published... Today there is no possibility under the law to prevent a mayor from naming such a person as deputy mayor but the minister should have the authority to do so.”
Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid has also come out against Zaatry’s appointment. He called on the Zionist Union, Kalisch Rotem's party, to call on her to cancel the agreement “that links them to the worst of Israel’s haters.”
Zaatry told Haaretz that Likud and Shas were left out of the city’s coalition and were now competing over which could be more right wing.
On Tuesday, Kalisch Rotem posted on her Facebook page: “Haifa is a mixed, complex, multifaceted, city. The secret of its beauty is precisely that, in its extraordinary human mosaic. When I signed an agreement with [ultra-Orthodox] Degel HaTorah before the elections, secular voters accused me of turning Haifa into [ultra-Orthodox city] Bnei Brak. When I signed an agreement with Yisrael Beiteinu, I was cautioned by the left that Haifa would lose its image as a moderate city and thus be harmed... Today we have signed an agreement with the Hadash party,” she said, adding that “the Arab public is an important part of our city.”