Zohair Hamdan, the mukhtar of the east Jerusalem Arab village of Sur Bahir who last month canceled plans to run for the city's mayoralty, said Sunday that he intends to endorse Nir Barkat's candidacy, and that he could bring thousands of east Jerusalem Arab voters with him.
"I have known Nir for many years, and I respect this man and what he does and represents," Hamdan told The Jerusalem Post. "I have wished him luck in the mayoral race, and if an agreement is reached, I promise to make sure that thousands of my people vote for him."
Barkat's headquarters said in response that Hamdan "has contacted our headquarters" and asked to meet with Barkat.
"A meeting between the two of them will be scheduled for the next [few] days. We will welcome all support of all the sectors living in Jerusalem."
Hamdan, 60, maintains close ties with Israel and was seriously wounded seven years ago in an attempted assassination by Palestinians, after voicing stinging criticism of the Palestinian Authority and then-chairman Yasser Arafat.
A quarter-million Arabs live in Jerusalem, comprising one in three city residents. The capital's Arab population has overwhelmingly boycotted the Jerusalem elections since the city was reunified in 1967.
According to a report by The Media Line news agency last week, rival mayoral candidate Arkadi Gaydamak has been making a concerted effort to attract Arab voters to the polling stations on November 11, promising to correct inequalities, open the way for Muslims and Arabs to invest in the city, and even build an international airport for Muslim pilgrims.
The article quoted from an interview with Gaydamak that appeared in a news bulletin called Al-Amal (The Hope), distributed recently in Jerusalem, in which he said that "daily life issues for more than 200,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem should not be neglected; they deserve to get their municipal rights in full just like others...
"It is clear that the [standard of living] of the Jews [in Jerusalem] is much higher and completely different from that which exists among the Arabs. Therefore I will achieve real equality between Arabs and Jews and bridge the gap between the two sides."
This "injustice," he went on, "is the result of mistaken policy pursued by the municipality of Jerusalem towards the Arabs over the past decades."
The Media Line article said Gaydamak had initiated a series of meetings with prominent Arabs in the city to try to convince them to participate in the elections.
"I met the Grand Mufti, the honorable Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, at his home and he gave me the 'Honored Guest' certificate, the first to be given to an Israeli personality," the article quoted Gaydamak as saying.
"I think the best thing I presented to the Arabs of Jerusalem was buying Bikur Holim hospital, which serves thousands of Arab citizens and provides work for dozens of Arab doctors and nurses."
Speaking to the Post on Sunday, Noam Ezra, from Gaydamak's Social Justice list, said that "Arkadi has claimed right from the start that Jerusalem suffers from inequity, with a third of the city's residents discriminated against," and that he intended to work to rectify this.
"The Jerusalem Municipality is not a political entity... and doesn't decide what would be the future of the city... It is, rather, the janitor, if you like," said Ezra, "and its mission is to serve the residents. It is responsible for the sewage system, schools, the water and the cultural activities offered to the residents."
Contrary to some reports, Ezra said Gaydamak had not offered a position of deputy mayor to any local Arab leaders, but rather would offer a post of adviser on how to approach the Arab residents' problems.
Ezra said further that most of the leaders of local Arab villages were backing Gaydamak's mayoral bid, including Hamdan.
"We want to offer them partnership," Ezra said. "The injustice must be fixed. The Arab villages should have the same quality of services the Jewish neighborhoods have enjoyed for many years."
Hamdan told the Post, however, that "I don't think Gaydamak is the right person for us," and that he had never said he was backing him.
Hamdan said he hoped to become a mayoral adviser on east Jerusalem affairs, presumably to Barkat. Among the issues he wants to promote is the cancellation of the local leadership system in the Arab sector of Jerusalem, where the mukhtars run village matters.
"Residents should elect their own leaders, and I prefer to see the young generation take this mission upon itself," he said. "Mukhtars are usually old and they tend to sit at home and do nothing."
Hamdan said he could assist in reexamining the numerous municipal orders for demolishing illegally constructed houses, as well as finding a solution for the housing problems faced by young Arab Jerusalemites.
If the advisory job works out, he said, "all residents of Jerusalem will be welcomed in my office and I will assist anyone who asks my help, Arab and Jewish. But above all, the discrimination against the Arab residents must be stopped."
Haredi candidate MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) also said Arab residents should be represented at city hall.
"There is a need to invest in their neighborhoods, just as there is a need to invest in the Jewish neighborhoods," he said, stressing, "Our list of candidates for city council includes only religious representatives. The Arabs should use their democratic right and get themselves representation as well."
The Media Line article quoted the mufti as denouncing Israel's "occupation" of Jerusalem.
"All that is being done in Jerusalem is occupation, and this occupation should end," he said. However, he did not explicitly call for an election boycott.
The article said an increasing number of Palestinians in the city were becoming convinced that they should be represented at city hall.
"We pay city taxes and go to the municipality to get licenses to build, so what is the point of not being represented at city hall?" one Palestinian businessman was quoted as saying. "We should be represented at city hall and defend our rights from inside."