Will this Arab Israeli ‘outsider’ become Jerusalem’s next mayor? – The Jerusalem Post

On the terrace of the Notre Dame Hotel overlooking the Old City, Waleed Abu Tayeh, a surprise contender for Jerusalem mayor and city council, manages his campaign. 

Abu Tayeh is an Arab Israeli, born in Nazareth to a family that several generations ago emigrated from Egypt. His wife is a Palestinian from Ramallah who received Israeli citizenship upon her marriage. The couple has three children – two daughters and a son – all currently living in the US, either for work or studies. Abu Tayeh is also an American citizen and has a house in Orlando, Florida, besides the original family home in Nazareth, and another in Jerusalem’s Beit Safafa, where he has been living for the past 40 years. 

He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the Hebrew University – in law and accounting – and a doctorate from Columbia University, New York. For almost a decade, Abu Tayeh worked in the Finance Ministry and is presently engaged in tax consulting. He is fluent in Hebrew and English.

Mr. Abu Tayeh, who are you? 

I started my studies at the University of Haifa, in accounting. I failed the transition exam because I was busy founding the committee of the Arab students at the university, with Azmi Bashara and other friends. Then I decided to move to the university in Jerusalem to devote myself to studies; I didn’t want to keep messing with it. 

But here you are again with politics.

I am always with politics of course, but I studied, graduated, and worked for years in the Ministry of Finance. I got a lot of experience and many connections. But then I applied for a tender for the position of director of income tax. Although I was most qualified, a Jewish candidate got it, so I quit. 

THE BEIT Safafa neighborhood where Abu Tayeh has been residing for the past 40 years. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Does the fact that you have Israeli citizenship help you cope? Are you less threatened than Palestinians who preceded you and tried to enter local politics and had to give up because they were threatened? 

I am Israeli, and I have American citizenship, so I personally am not threatened. But today Facebook closed the page of a group of Palestinian residents who support me from Kfar Aqab. Look, to run for mayor you have to be Israeli, but [to run] for the council, you don’t have to have to; residence is enough. 

In the last two years, I have written articles on the subject and found out that everyone wants to participate in the elections because their feeling is that they were left without a father and without a mother; but they are afraid of the Palestinian Authority, so they don’t participate. 

On the other hand, the Israeli establishment says that this is a democratic country and that it wants the residents of eastern Jerusalem to participate. But the truth is, they don’t really want them to; the Israeli establishment is only interested in maintaining the status of the Jews. 

So how do you explain the huge budget of the five-year plan to upgrade eastern Jerusalem? 

This is because the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) says if we give young people a high level of education, they will stop engaging in terrorism. Indeed, those who have education and care about their degree and their livelihood will stop engaging in terrorism. Those who engage in terrorism are those whose life is without hope.

Do you agree with that? 

Israel is a democratic country and must educate people, according to the law. There is an international civil rights convention that Israel signed in 1966, which says that every nation under occupation has the right to manage its own civil and political affairs. 

For example, five or 10 years from now, there will be a real Palestinian state that is not corrupt and does not have a low standard of living, and then they [the Palestinians] can choose to either stay in Israel or join the progressive Palestinian state. 

The PA says ‘Don’t vote’ because voting [in Israel] is a recognition of the occupation, this is the national consensus. But do you remember the Khartoum conference and the Three No’s Resolution? [No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.] But in 1979, Sadat came and said ‘Why no, no, no? We have to act according to national interest.’ And that is my position. He was smart. 

In 1948, the mayor of Nazareth, whose name was Yosef Fahum, while the mayor of Jaffa, Yousef Haikal, announced that he was an immigrant and invited more residents to immigrate. 

There were then 100,000 Palestinian residents in Jaffa, and 90,000 more immigrated. Today there are barely 30,000 – and many of them are drug addicts. 

When the Israelis entered Nazareth, the mayor took a white flag and said, ‘I surrender, on the condition that no one be deported.’ Within three months, the number of residents was 30,000. Today, it is already 120,000. 

He was declared a collaborator, but actually he had a vision.

So you’re basically saying who will take care of us? The government doesn’t, the PA doesn’t, so we’ll take care of ourselves and our rights. Is that what you’re saying?

I have to face what this crazy [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich wants – to finish with us, right?

But this system that whoever is strong decides for everyone is not an invention of the Jews, it is what is happening in this whole region. Israeli democracy is not perfect, but around us there is no really great democracy.

But we live here, we pay our dues, so we want our rights.

What is the position of the Palestinian Authority toward your initiative? 

I wrote a letter to Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] in April of this year. I wrote: ‘Mr President, I am an Israeli citizen, I was born in Nazareth, I have been a resident of Jerusalem for 44 years. I intend to submit my candidacy for mayor and council member.’ He answered: ‘First, the matter of Jerusalem is very complicated. Second: Don’t talk politics, talk about duties and rights. Third thing, consult with the Arabs in Israel.’ And in conclusion, he wrote that he is not giving me either a green or a red light. He gave us the freedom of action. If he had supported me publicly, it would have harmed me. Two weeks later, the authority’s Mufti issued a fatwa [Islamic religious directive], saying it was forbidden. The fatwa is from 1969, but he has issued it again now.

How did you respond?

I silenced him. I told him that we have a surah [chapter] in the Quran of the Prophet Joseph – your Joseph, yes? Pharaoh asked him to manage the state’s budget – and gave it to an infidel. I told him, ‘You are first of all a civil servant of the PA. Before you issue a fatwa on the elections, give a fatwa on preventing road accidents.’

What about the Hamas people in eastern Jerusalem – are they trying to intervene? 

No. None of them interfere with me.

What is your program?

Stop the demolition of the houses for two years, during which time committees will be established, between the municipality and the neighborhoods, to check for building violations of up to 20%, that can be regulated. And the second thing is the debts of residents with the municipality – to make payment arrangements. Third thing, to create employment in accordance with the Adequate Representation Law. There is such a law; and to this day, out of 12,000 employees in the municipality, only about 1,000 of them are Palestinians living in the eastern part of the city.

So your program is not political but rather focused on issues of rights for the residents?

Right, exactly. That is what Abu Mazen requested. There is injustice, there is suffering, there is a very low standard of living, and poverty I want to take care of. I sent a detailed letter on the matter to the mayor, twice, and he still hasn’t bothered to respond. 

I asked the police for permission to demonstrate in Safra Square demanding that our requests be addressed – here too, no response. So I intend to file a petition with the court. I will not give up. I’m not afraid. Jerusalem is my life’s mission; I focus only on that.

On what do you base that there is widespread interest? Who are the people who want to vote for you?

Eighty percent of the residents of eastern Jerusalem support my initiative. I will be elected mayor, and I will have eight seats on the council – two from Jews’ votes and the rest from Palestinians here.

Does this mean that the residents of eastern Jerusalem realize that the city will no longer be divided and now they want to focus on their lives and not on the attempts to divide the city again?

Even if there is a solution of two states or one state, the city must remain open and not be divided or become an international city like the Vatican. Why not? We are cousins, we want to live. You and us – the People of the Book – believe. Despite Smotrich and [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.

Yes, but there are also our difficult memories of the Second Intifada. Terrible things we experienced here. This cannot be ignored. 

That is why we need to stop the violence and engage in our lives here.

The people who support you, what do they want? 

They want to live, get proper housing, education, and work.

Will you oppose Jews buying Arab property in the Old City?

It’s a provocation. I can’t prevent it. I’m not the police. He who sold, sold. If Jews enter wherever they want, Palestinians can also live wherever they want.

In conclusion, the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have actually moved from the stage of the political struggle to the stage of seeking quality of life. Is that what you are saying?

Yes. Yes, that’s how it is.

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