Two years ago, as Israeli Arab demonstrations in solidarity with the intifada uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip spread into the port city of Haifa, tragedy seemed imminent.
Protests and stonethrowing picked up momentum at the edge of the Arab Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, near the waterfront. Police gunfire appeared inevitable. But the town's Jewish mayor, Amram Mitzna, a former general, intervened.
"To Mitzna's credit, he stood in the middle of the demonstrators and asked the police not to shoot," recalled Ayman Odeh, a Haifa city councillor. "And no one can ever take that action away from him." Unlike the rest of Israel, where 13 Arabs died, prompting a state commission of inquiry into police behavior, no one was hurt in Haifa. And Mr. Mitzna, Arab residents recall, kept a promise to gain release from prison of Arabs who were arrested that day.
Having won control of the Labor Party in his first foray into national politics, Mitzna is running for prime minister after serving as Haifa's mayor for nine years. And he is stressing the relatively harmonious relations of Jews and Arabs in Haifa as one of his major accomplishments. Since he has no previous experience in national politics, his policies in Haifa may offer a window into his views on Israel's relations with its Arab minority and the Arab world.
"I won't be changing my world view," he said in this week's Ha'aretz magazine. "My worldview is crystallized and the way it has been expressed in the Haifa municipality will be the way it will be expressed in the government."
Mitzna's depiction of his hilly, picturesque city, which has an Arab minority of about 10 percent of its 270,000 residents, is seen by many as an idealization, or at least a campaign spin. There have been two suicide bombings here and Israeli army actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have angered Arab residents. Distrust among the communities runs high. But most people think it would be worse if not for Mitzna.
"There is a consensus that Mitzna has done more for coexistence than any mayor before him, but even during Mitzna's time there has not been complete equality," says Mr. Odeh, the city councillor whose Hadash party is part of Mitzna's coalition. Its participation, which includes a deputy mayor, is in itself a rarity in Israeli politics, where Arab-oriented parties are usually shunned by Jewish politicians.
Moti Peri, director of the municipality-funded Bet HaGefen Arab-Jewish Center, who works with the mayor on projects, says that Mitzna has put great stress on "symbolic politics" in his relations with Arabs.
Yesterday, in one of his first acts at the helm of Labor, Mitzna sent lawmaker Yossi Katz to Cairo for talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. And in 1996, when the mayor of another town, Safed, declared Abu Mazen, a senior PLO official born in Safed, to be unwelcome there, Mitzna issued a public invitation for him to visit Haifa, Mr. Peri recalls. And until the peace process collapsed in 2000, the mayor also sponsored Arab cultural festivals including representatives from the Gaza Strip, who marched down a major street with a Palestinian flag, he adds. In the practical realm, Mitzna broke ground by appointing Arabs to senior positions in the municipality, including its treasurer, Jacky Wakeem, says Peri.
In Peri's view, Mitzna believes in coexistence and was not simply courting Arab voters. "I think that Mitzna became more humane because of his army experience," he says, referring to Mitzna's service as commander of the West Bank during the intifada uprising.
During that period, Palestinians considered him tough for overseeing house demolitions and collective punishments, but he was also disliked by Jewish settlers. Critics say that even under Mitzna, Arabs continue to be discriminated against when it comes to funding for education and social services. He takes pride in building Haifa's first modern public high school for Arab pupils, the Shizaf School, but it is not nearly enough and still leaves the Arab community lagging in educational facilities, says Suha Sibany, an activist on educational issues.
Mitzna also allocated funds to start a local Arab theatre, al-Midan, and raised money for Bet HaGefen to open a library with computer facilities. But by far Mitzna's most visible actions have been in Wadi Nisnas, where the municipality holds the "holiday of holidays festival." The festival, which this year begins Saturday, draws on Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan, turning the neighborhood's streets into a carnival and attracting Arab and Jewish artists from all over the country.
"The problem is that all of this is really for the tourists, it did not offer any social services to the people living in the wadi,"says Ms. Sibany. She adds that the city is planning to tear down a large number of buildings in the neighborhood to widen streets, a move she says will displace elderly people. "Haifa is not the best model for anything," she says.
Sammy Smooha, a Haifa University sociologist, says the mayor worked hard to keep Jewish shoppers going to Wadi Nisnas after the intifada started, and credits him with "acting as a pacifier, a coordinator, a person who earned the trust and support of both sides. He recognized the Arab community as an entity to talk to, to negotiate with. He didn't try to dominate or ignore it."
But Mr. Smooha stresses that Mitzna's success was facilitated by the facts that Haifa's Arabs come from a better socioeconomic background, are predominantly Christian, and make up less of the overall population than in other mixed cities. "Mitzna used a model of power-sharing. But it would be hard to apply this model to the mixed cities where Jews feel very insecure. There a model of domination is used."
Odeh, the city councillor, says the main reason Arabs are interested in Mitzna's success is not his record in Haifa but that he favors a return to negotiations with the Palestinians. "The key problem is the occupation. Our people are at war with our state. To speak of equality without solving the Palestinian problem is superficial. I am pinning my hopes on Mitzna. I want him to be prime minister."