Nazareth's Christian mayor squares off against Ahmad Zoubi, a Muslim hoping to head municipality.
By BRENDA GAZZAR
Political observers are keeping a close eye on the outcomes of Tuesday's elections in Arab cities and local authorities, where some races are expected to be particularly tight and where political parties often contend with clan-based voting.
In Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city, long-time Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy of the Nazareth Democratic Front - a part of Hadash - is competing with Ahmad Zoubi, who is running on a unified list alongside representatives of the Islamic Movement.
Both candidates say they are the most qualified to maintain the unity of the city, where tensions periodically flare between the city's Muslim and minority Christian population.
Five years ago, Jaraisy, a Christian, beat Zoubi, a Muslim, by a two percent margin and this year's race could be just as close.
"If the incumbent mayor loses, it will be very significant because it would put an end to a very long period of Hadash control over the municipality, which in fact started in December 1975," said Prof. Elie Rekhess, director of Tel Aviv's Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Education and an expert in Arab politics in Israel.
Zoubi, whose united list is made up of all Muslim candidates, said he was confident there would finally be a change of regime.
"I think that the atmosphere of change is all over the world, not only in America with [Barack] Obama, but also in Nazareth," he said.
Jaraisy said his party was expected to win not only the mayoral race, but also a majority on the city council.
In addition to preserving unity, both candidates mentioned territorial annexation as well as economic and cultural development among their goals.
In the northern city of Umm el-Fahm, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement has been in control for nearly 20 years and is extremely popular. The movement's candidate for mayor, Khaled Hamdan, was chosen to run over the current mayor, Hashim Abdul Rahman, who has held the position for the last five years.
Rahman said the move was "an internal decision."
In another sign of internal tensions, another candidate from the Islamic Movement, Tahir Ali, has opted to split away and is running on an independent list. Observers say he was unhappy with the way the city was being run.
Two secular candidates are also running, one supported by Hadash and Balad, the other supported by a radical, nationalistic party called "Abna el-Balad." However, the secular opposition in Umm el-Fahm has been "very unsuccessful," Rekhess said, with the Islamic candidate for mayor earning 75 percent of the vote in the last elections.
In the town of Rahat, near Beersheba, the more moderate southern branch of the Islamic Movement is trying to regain control of this important Arab population center.
The movement controled the town from 1989 to 1993 and then again from 1998 to 2001, but hasn't dominated since.
The current mayor, Talal el-Qarinawi, is an independent candidate who has served since 2001. He is vying against Islamic Movement candidate Faiz Abu Tzeyban as well as two independent candidates.
Issues range from employment to education to infrastructure, said Ali Abu Hassan, the municipality's secretary.
Another important race in Tuesday's elections is the battle for the mayor of Sakhnin, where the incumbent Muhammad Bashir (Hadash) is running against Mazen Ghanaim, who is affiliated with the Balad Party.
This is the only place in the Arab sector where candidates representing the two parties are vying in a municipal leadership race, said Muhanned Mustafa, a political science doctoral student at the University of Haifa.
"It gives the election in Sakhnin a certain importance. It also has an influence on the national elections," he said.
"It's important for Balad to win, so that it can give the impression that it is strong and didn't weaken after the departure of [former MK and Balad leader] Azmi Bishara," he said. "Hadash wants to win there so it can say and feel that it is still the most popular party in the local elections."
Elections are not taking place in nine Arab localities, including Kafr Kana and Taibe, because their local councils have been dissolved by the Interior Ministry due to financial troubles and the towns are now being run by administrative committees.
Yousef Jabareen, director of the Nazareth-based Dirasat: Arab Center for Law and Policy, argues that these troubles are caused both by a lack of equitable funding to Arab localities and a "lack of adequate skills among the elected representatives," which are often elected according to families or clans.
In addition to more government funds, he said, "there is a need for the Arab community and civil society to improve the skills and capacities of our representatives within the local government to guarantee better performance."
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