In Lod, a city of 75,000 people in the shadow of Ben Gurion Airport, a Jewish mayor from the Likud Party, who once stormed a mosque to try to stop the broadcasting of prayers, has joined forces with Arab members of the City Council to invest tens of millions of shekels in school construction and renovation in what the mayor calls a “revolution in Arab education.”
Eighty miles away, the seaside town of Acre also has a Jewish mayor from Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and a deputy mayor who is a local leader in the Islamic Movement. And in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a first-time city councilor bucked criticism from fellow Palestinian citizens of Israel to join the Jewish mayor’s governing coalition.
In these and other mixed Jewish-Arab cities across Israel, there’s a new kind of political cooperation afoot. Palestinian citizens of Israel and their Jewish counterparts — including conservatives like the Acre mayor, who once helped ban a play about Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank — are building relationships in the halls of city government.
These relationships — still verboten on the national political level — do not reflect a softening of ideology but a pragmatic realization about how best to serve their constituents.
“They understand they have to influence the process, they cannot sit aside,” Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of The Abraham Initiatives, a coexistence group, said of the Arab-Israelis on city councils. “Jewish politicians realize that they cannot ignore Arab residents,” he added. “Arab residents are really looking for the provision of equal services in mixed cities.”
The Abraham Initiatives counted seven cities — Ramle, Lod, Nof HaGalil, Ma’alot Tarshiha, Haifa, Acre, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa — in which Palestinian lawmakers joined Jewish-led coalitions after the 2018 municipal elections. In contrast, five years earlier, only Haifa and Acre had mixed coalitions.
No such change appears to be on the horizon on the national level, where Israeli voters go to the polls March 2 for the third time in 11 months.
After the second round of this election cycle, in September, most members of the Joint List, a consortium of Arab-majority parties, took the historic step of endorsing Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, to form a ruling coalition. But after Gantz embraced President Trump’s peace plan, the Joint List distanced itself from Gantz, with one member saying there was no way the list could endorse him again. Gantz has in any case said he would not include the Joint List in a coalition.
The most unexpected example of this newfound cooperation might be in Lod, an impoverished city with a wrenching past whose population is about 30% Palestinian according to data from the Israel Democracy Institute.
A town with Biblical roots, Lod’s original Palestinian families were mostly expelled by Israeli forces during the 1948 war. The non-Jewish residents of Lod today include descendants of the survivors of that expulsion — part of what Palestinians call the Nakba — as well as Bedouins and residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip who collaborated with Israeli security forces and were resettled in Israel for their protection.
The Jewish majority in Lod is similarly multifaceted, with Ethiopians, Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, and others. In recent years, religious Zionists have stoked tensions by moving into heavily Palestinian areas with the goal of strengthening the city’s Jewish population.
For years, Lod’s city government was mired in corruption. The city went bankrupt and was run by a succession of non-elected managers. The 2013 elections signaled a return to functioning city government, but the new mayor, Likud’s Yair Revivo, has sometimes picked at the city’s scabs. In 2017, he outraged Muslims by barging into a mosque during Eid Al Adha, a major feast holiday, claiming that the imam had violated an agreement not to broadcast sermons over loudspeakers.
A year later, the Palestinian Alnidaa Alarabi party won six of Lod’s 19 council seats, and signed an agreement to join Revivo’s coalition. The head of the party, Faraj Eben Faraj, said he had forgiven Revivo, who apologized publicly for his behavior at the mosque. But he said his decision to join the mayor’s coalition had nothing to do with forgiveness — it was about having a say in planning, building a new community center, and improving education.
“When we are part of the coalition, it is more convenient, things happen more easily,” explained Eben Faraj. “In the opposition you need more effort, you have to mobilize people, get them out to protest.”
Eben Faraj said his most important achievement since joining the coalition has been slowing the demolitions of homes that were built without permits. This is an issue across Israel: Palestinians say they are forced to build illegally because of government discrimination in planning. Among his constituents, “the sword of demolition is always at their throats,” Eben Faraj said.
The councilman said he made it clear to Lod’s mayor that he would not join the coalition if the demolitions continued, threatening a divided government that could make it tougher for the mayor to enact his priorities. Now, Eben Faraj is working on a program that would allow residents to retroactively legalize homes built without permits in part by purchasing the property underneath.
In an interview, Likud deputy mayor Rafael Katashavili said that the city shares Eben Faraj’s goal to legalize these buildings, so long as the owners pay any back taxes owed on the structures. “The permits,” he said, “will be provided as much as possible according to the law.”
But if joining a Jewish-led coalition can have direct benefits for Israeli-Arab communities, it can also raise difficult personal questions for lawmakers who choose that path. Abed Abou Shhadeh, a 32-year-old activist who was elected to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa council in 2018, said “it was a hard decision to make” because his “political narrative and discourse surrounds being in the opposition.”
Abou Shhadeh had run for office promising to deliver better services to Jaffa’s Palestinian minority. In his year and a half in office, he said, he has secured 3 million shekels to fund parks, youth programs, housing improvements, and a facility for senior citizens. He also said he convinced the city to hire a Palestinian public-relations professional to liaise with residents.
There has been a sea-change in his constituents’ expectations, the councilman said; they are no longer satisfied with a nationalistic slogans.
“If you stick to the classic national perspective,” he explained, “that this is collaboration, and we are on colonized land — the community will tell you, ‘O.K., that is nice, we agree with you, but at the end of the day we want more budgets, we want more schools.’”
In Acre, the port city in northern Israel, cooperation between Jewish and Arab politicians dates back years. The city has the rare distinction of having a Jewish mayor — Shimon Lankri of the ruling Likud party — and a Palestinian deputy mayor — Adham Jamal, who is a local leader in the Islamic Movement though belongs to a different political faction. The two, who have served in this configuration for about 12 years, say they agree on virtually everything — even the controversial banning in 2017 of the play Prisoners of the Occupation — but their relationship itself has sparked consternation in the mixed city.
In 2008, Acre was beset by riots after a Palestinian citizen of Israel and his son drove into a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur. Jewish residents threw rocks, and as a false rumor spread that the driver had been killed, Palestinians took revenge by vandalizing cars and business. Shortly after the violence subsided, Lanrki was reelected as mayor. Jewish voters pressured him not to name Jamal as his deputy, but he went ahead and did it anyway.
“It’s very important because it’s a message to all the citizens,” Lankri said in a recent interview.
In the years since, Acre’s leaders have invested in after-school programs where Jewish and Palestinian children meet each other and made sure both populations were represented on the youth council. Lankri calls Acre a model for other mixed cities. But Acre also reveals the limitations of shared leadership within the Jewish state. Jamal said in an interview that he would never run for mayor, in part because he believes that the national government would neglect his city if there were a Palestinian in charge.
“In a country like Israel,” he said, “a mayor of a mixed city should be Jewish, because that way they’ll invest more and provide more.”
In Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Abou Shhadeh said he sees a “very ,very low ceiling” for his career in local politics because he cannot imagine the Jewish-majority city electing a Palestinian mayor. But if he ran for Parliament instead, he’d undoubtedly sit in the opposition, where, he said, one ends up “in the position of not being able to deliver on things people are demanding.”
And in Lod, Eben Faraj pointed out that while his party has just as many seats as Likud, he was never made a salaried deputy mayor, a rank that would have increased his power in City Hall. He said that the mayor deliberately overlooked him for the role for fear of alienating right-wing voters. A spokesman for the mayor responded that only two councilors can be made salaried deputies, and that both were chosen based on when they entered the coalition.
Ever the optimist, Eben Faraj has come up with a kind of twisted silver lining. Since he’s not a salaried deputy, he feels freer to pressure the mayor to meet his demands in exchange for his continued loyalty.
“I can cause more problems,” he pointed out, “and say, ‘if you don’t want to cooperate, I can be part of the opposition.’”
Naomi Zeveloff is a freelance journalist based in Jaffa, and a regular contributor to the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Arab and Jewish Israeli politicians work together in coalitions— but only at the local level