Labor’s First Loss in Haifa Produces New Battle Plan

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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HAIFA — To most observers, Israel’s municipal elections last June were memorable mainly because Jerusalem elected its first-ever ultra-Orthodox mayor. But to political insiders, the real revolution may have been here in the port city of Haifa, where the Labor Party lost control of City Hall for the first time.

The new mayor, Yona Yahav, is a former Labor Knesset member, but in June he ran — and won — as an independent, backed by the upstart Shinui Party. Labor was unrepresented in the race after its candidate, who was trailing hopelessly, dropped out.

The humiliating loss of Labor’s most reliable stronghold continued a two-year slide for the party of Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Labor’s last prime minister, Ehud Barak, lost his 2001 re-election bid by an unprecedented landslide to Ariel Sharon of Likud. The party was reduced even further in last January’s Knesset elections, taking only 19 seats to Likud’s 38. Pundits now speak of the all-but-certain demise of the party that founded the state.

Labor’s once dominant position in local politics is gone as well. With the loss of Haifa, Labor is now shut out of all three big cities — though Tel Aviv’s current mayor, Ron Huldai, is a former Laborite-turned-independent like Yahav.

Of course, given the unpredictability of Israeli politics — to say nothing of the peace process — it is probably too early to predict a permanent shift in the voters’ tastes. On the other hand, the story of Yahav and Haifa itself might in fact indicate the beginning of a new 21st century political map.

A lifelong Laborite, long active in Haifa city politics, Yahav wanted to run as the Labor candidate but failed to receive the party’s nod. Unperturbed, he launched an independent party, Our Haifa, with a City Council slate stacked with Shinui and Green Party members as well as local housing activists.

Yahav’s main rival, retired general Shmuel Arad of Likud, was expected to win, in keeping with the strong Likud victory in the national election. But the Labor candidate who was running a poor third, academic and former diplomat Aliza Shenhar, dropped out of the race and endorsed Yahav three days before the election. She had no choice: Polls indicated that her continued candidacy would split the left and ensure a Likud victory.

Arad still won 43% of the vote, the highest ever for a Likud candidate in a Haifa mayoral election. The party increased its representation on the City Council by winning five of the 31 seats, compared with three in the 1998 elections. Yahav, however, captured 52% of the vote, and his list won six seats, compared with Shinui’s three seats in the prior government, to become the biggest faction in the council.

The political world was stunned. Since 1940 no one other than a member of Labor had ruled this Mediterranean port city of 275,000, Israel’s third largest city. True, the party had suffered a major upset in January’s national election: Haifa voted for Likud over Labor for the first time in its history, by 28% to 22%, even though the city’s own twice-elected mayor, Amram Mitzna, was the Labor candidate for prime minister. But to lose City Hall in the place traditionally known as “Red Haifa” for its socialist leanings and party loyalty? If the party could lose here, went the whispers, it had no future anywhere, and Yahav was the very symbol of the party’s collapse.

The 59-year-old Haifa native disagrees, proudly noting that he is still a dues-paying party member.

“I am not the example of what happened to the Labor Party, I am the example for the future alliance,” he told the Forward, sitting in his City Hall office opposite a park overlooking the sea. “The future alliance, which could easily become a very achievable alternative, is an alliance from the center to the left. It means Shinui and Labor and others together in one alliance. I created this alliance here in Haifa, and if this can be exported to the rest of the country, we can set up a very significant alternative.”

Yahav doesn’t discount an eventual merger between Labor and Shinui but says it should follow a transition period. He cites the example of Meretz, a merger of three smaller parties that had worked for years as an alliance. Even Likud and Labor emerged from mergers of smaller parties that had worked in alliance before combining.

“The same has to happen here,” Yahav said. “I already convinced the people of Shinui and Shimon Peres that they should try to create alliances of this sort in various cities in Israel, because I believe that the grounds for penetrating into the minds of the people has to start on a municipal basis. A municipality is the closest political framework to the people.”

One of the things Haifa has long been famous for is the relationship between Arab and Jewish residents. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat came to Israel in 1977, he made a point of visiting Haifa, now home to some 30,000 Arabs and 245,000 Jews who live in relative harmony.

Yahav says the harmony will continue under his stewardship, because the Arab population has known him for 25 years and trusts him. He gushes over the 91% Arab vote he received — “like Saddam Hussein” — and says he is determined to “accelerate the revolution among the Arab society in Haifa, and turn it into the model of a mixed society.”

Yahav’s belief in alliances led him to form a broad governing coalition on the City Council, including not only Arab parties but the ultra-Orthodox as well. The pact irked the national leadership of his adopted party. At a pre-coalition meeting with Shinui chairman Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, Yahav was told flatly that Shinui’s policy rules out including ultra-Orthodox parties in any coalition, national or local.

In the end Yahav pulled an end-run. “My coalition is wall to wall, including the charedim,” he said. But to satisfy Shinui, he brought the ultra-Orthodox in informally, without having them sign the coalition agreement. “I gave them all the positions, I gave them all the rights, but they are not obliged towards me. Shinui can say they are not in the coalition; I declared that they are in the coalition. I act as if they are partners of mine, and they are acting as being partners of mine. Everybody is happy.”

Yahav speaks proudly of his ability to relate to the ultra-Orthodox community, crediting his Orthodox upbringing and schooling. “I am Orthodox in my way of thinking,” he said. However, he notes, as a graduate of Leo Baeck High School, Israel’s pioneer Reform high school, he knows Israel’s religious divide from both sides.

“There is no tolerance in Israel, especially with regard to religious problems,” he said, “and I am blaming only one side — the Orthodox side. The religious in Israel exaggerated 20 years ago in trying to impose religious beliefs through legislation. This was a tremendous mistake on their part. In 1973 there were 28,000 couples married through the rabbinate. In the year 2003, there were also 28,000, even though the whole population has tripled. They turned off 75% of the population against the religion. And people don’t differentiate between religion and religious people. Therefore they turn violently against it.”

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