Since the Yom Kippur events in Acre in 2008, it has become clear that the settlers have identified mixed cities as one of the weak points of shared life between Jews and Palestinians in general, and within the Green Line’s borders in particular. Since then, they have established the “Torah nucleus” in almost all mixed cities and sent settler families to Lod, Acre, Haifa, Ramla, and Jaffa. The attempt to exclude Palestinian Arab citizens in mixed cities began as early as 1994, following the approval of the Oslo Accords by Yitzhak Rabin’s government, with the support of Arab public representatives.
Settler leaders slowly learned that Palestinian citizens of Israel constituted a majority of the opposition camp. The support of Mohammad Barakeh and Azmi Bishara for Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza highlighted the potential influence of Palestinian Arab citizens through their ongoing participation in elections. As part of an effort to weaken the parties and the Palestinian public, the right has submitted dozens of bills, seeking to disqualify parties and candidates in almost every election campaign for the Knesset. In May 2021, right after Netanyahu lost the elections, the “Torah nucleus”, backed by the police, instigated violent events in the mixed cities. The ”Torah nucleus” enlisted busloads of hilltop youth to attack Arabs living in Haifa, Lod, Acre, and Jaffa.
Approaching the municipal elections, the “Torah nucleus”, along with the Jewish Power party, are attempting to become legitimate political players even in the city of Haifa. Last week, Itamar Ben Gvir provided political sponsorship to “Zionist Haifa,” led by Yoav Ramati.
In Lod, the struggle between the veterans and the “Torah nucleus” is intense. The mayor of Lod, Yair Revivo, appointed hundreds of “Torah nucleus”members to various positions in the municipality. During the May 2021 events, an Arab citizen was murdered, and dozens of young people were arrested and convicted. Those from the “Torah nucleus” who attacked the homes of Arab citizens disappeared and were neither arrested nor convicted. Arabs in Lod were pushed into a blood feud between criminal organizations. Unknown assailants shot at the homes of Arab candidates for the city council, and bulldozers were sent to demolish the homes of Arab political activists without permits. Recently, Revivo revealed that he had brought two warring criminal organizations to his office and arranged a “reconciliation” between them. He apparently aims to gain support from some Arabs in Lod who have gotten entangled with the law and one another.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), as of the end of May 2023 (estimate), 292,105 residents live in Haifa, ranking it third among local authorities in Israel. The population has grown at an annual rate of 2.4%. In the 2020-2021 school year, the percentage of high school students eligible for a matriculation certificate was 76.8%. The average monthly wage of an employee in 2019 was 9,651 shekels, compared to the national average of 9,745 shekels.
In the 2000s, Haifa experienced negative population growth. This trend was the result of a negative migration balance and low natural growth. In 2006, for example, about 2,000 residents left the city, and only 890 babies were born.
However, in the 2020s, so far , the city’s population began to grow again, partly due to the Ukrainian refugees who arrived in 2022. This influx led Haifa to grow at an especially high annual rate and reach 295,000 residents.
In the 1990s, Haifa absorbed the largest relative share of migration from the former Soviet Union among Israel’s large cities. People from the former Soviet states comprise 24.5% of Haifa’s population, primarily concentrated in the neighborhoods of Yizraelia in Neve Sha’anan, Kiryat Eliezer in the west of the city, Hadar HaCarmel, Western Kiryat Haim, and other areas.
In Tel-Amal, located next to Halisa, individuals from the former Soviet states constitute 60% of the population, and a comparable percentage can be found in certain areas of Hadar HaCarmel. In the Hadar district, this demographic primarily consists of young families, while in Tel-Amal and the eastern part of the city, the population skews older.. Russian migration has shaped the city over the past couple of decades. Many municipal, governmental, and private business signs as well as advertisements throughout the city are now written in Russian alongside Hebrew.
As of 2020, 33,694 Arabs live in Haifa, constituting about 12% of the population with Muslims and Christians being equally represented..Generally, Arab residents in Haifa have a secular lifestyle.
The Arab residents of Haifa are mainly concentrated in the lower city neighborhoods: Wadi Nisnas and the German Colony in the west (Christians), and Halisa in the east (Muslims). Haifa’s Grand Mosque, the Istiqlal (“Independence”) Mosque, is located in Faisal Square in the city center.
While not a defining or dominant presence, another distinctive group within the cityscape is the religious community. Religious groups in Haifa can be categorized into sub-groups. The ultra-Orthodox, encompassing both Hasidic and Lithuanian streams, are primarily clustered in the eastern part of the Hadar quarter, where you can find the Haifa Great Synagogue. In this area, along with parts of Kiryat Shmuel, streets are closed to vehicular traffic during Sabbaths. Nevertheless, there’s an observable trend among the ultra-Orthodox community, with many young couples choosing to relocate from their traditional neighborhood to the older Neve Sha’anan area.
The Religious Zionists are the second-largest group in Haifa, and they most prominently characterize Kiryat Shmuel in the northeast of the city. Established Religious-Zionist families reside mainly in Achuza, particularly in the southern part. Additionally, there are communities of the Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Reform Movement) in Haifa.
Ethiopian Jews began their journey in Haifa at a designated caravan site established in the southwestern part of the city, as part of the absorption efforts carried out during Operation Solomon. The individuals who arrived in the city, predominantly during and subsequent to the operation, now amount to approximately 4,000 and are predominantly situated in the eastern part of the city.
Moreover, in Haifa, 18% of the city’s residents are retirees. (about 48,000 people), giving the city the second-highest percentage of retirees in Israel as of 2010 . The Haifa municipality, through MILAB – Pensioners’ Club organizes extensive recreational, cultural, and welfare activities for retirees.
Mutual tolerance and the absence of conflicts between the religious population and the general population are key features of Haifa’s “co-existence.” One manifestation of this harmony is the fact that regular “Eeged” bus lines have been operating in Haifa on the Sabbath since the early days of the state. This practice reflects the city’s commitment to providing transportation options for all its residents, regardless of religious observance, while maintaining a peaceful coexistence between different groups within the community.
The Haifa Municipality
The Haifa Municipality
The current Mayor, Einat Kalisch Rotem, has found herself in various conflicts with nearly all of her political partners since the commencement of her term. The city council has largely remained quiet, leading to a shift in decision-making authority to the opposition, which has taken charge of the Finance Committee. Within this committee, two opposition members, Sofi Nach and Sarit Golan Steinberg, have assumed the responsibility of overseeing its meetings and determining the fate of projects, whether they progress or remain stagnant. Any proposed initiative by Kalisch has encountered a standstill within the Finance Committee. Remarkably, even Yona Yahav, who was defeated in the previous elections and is nearing the age of ninety, now appears to be spearheading the opposition against Kalisch.
Yahav, who governed the city for nearly 15 years, lost the trust of Haifa’s residents due to his increasing arrogance. Those in his circle began to allocate the city’s resources unequally, prompting residents to opt for his removal. He has now initiated a campaign and is rallying his former supporters who feel excluded from the city’s decision-making process. As the election draws near, at least ten candidates have already declared their mayoral ambitions. If all persist, a second round of voting is anticipated. While most candidates are striving to position themselves at the political center, their post-election behavior is likely to hinge on the nature of the coalition they will need to forge.
Candidates for the upcoming mayoral election include:
Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem
Sarit Golan Steinberg
The Russian Voice
The Russian presence in Haifa is significant yet spread out. Roughly a quarter of the voting population in Haifa has Russian origins. While a majority arrived during the 1990s, tens of thousands more have migrated to the city due to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The Russian consulate on HaParsim Street stands out as a bustling center. Russian is frequently heard on Haifa’s beaches. A range of businesses tailored for this community, including Russian-language bookstores, supermarkets, real estate agencies, and even medical services, have been established in the city.
The Ministry of Aliyah and Integration’s chief scientist Professor Zeev Hanin, released “Russian Cities of Israel” in 2017. In this study, he asserted that since 2013, Haifa has been recognized as a prominent destination for the latest wave of immigration, solidifying its status as the “Russian capital” of Israel. Various estimates indicate that nearly a quarter of Haifa’s population consists of Russian-speaking Israelis. The voice of the “Russian street” could significantly influence the course of the elections.
In the previous election, Haifa Beitenu, a faction of the Israel Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, captured about 8% of the Haifa voters’ ballots, double the national voting rate for Israel Beitenu.
The overwhelming majority of Russian speakers tend to vote for right-wing and extreme right-wing parties. Some sources estimate that up to 70% of Russian-speaking Israelis already know whom they will vote for. Among Russian speakers, 30-40% typically participate in elections. The rest are divided between left-wing parties like Labor or other candidates they support.
As of today, there are two Russian-speaking candidates in Haifa: Council members from the Israel Beitenu party, Lazar Kaplan, and Kirill Kartnik, both of whom were former assistants to the mayoral candidate in the last elections. Both are natives of Ukraine and came to Israel during the great migration in the 1990s. They both claim to represent the “Russian street,” speaking about a “glass ceiling” for Russian speakers and local-level discrimination against Russians.
Kirill Kartnik joined the city council in 2021 and formerly supported the present mayoral contender, David Atzioni. However, their relationship has evolved from collaboration to competition in the forthcoming election. Kartnik is aligned with the “Ani-Hay-Po” faction and staunchly opposes the incumbent council, consistently condemning instances of corruption within the mayor’s administration..
“I know the system from the inside and am familiar with all the municipality employees,” Kartanik asserts. “The budgets in the city treasury are large, but the management is very weak and spends the money inefficiently. Did you know that 42% of the municipality’s budget is spent on the salaries of its employees? Yet, a third of them do not perform.”
Kartnik actively opposes “Russian aggression in Ukraine.” Earlier this year, he proposed renaming the street where the Russian consulate resides after Ukrainian President Zelensky, leading to mixed responses. In April, he wrote a letter protesting the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the Sambo international tournament held in Haifa.
Lazar Kaplon heads the “Da, Haifa” list and is a current member of Haifa’s city council. He is a former deputy mayor and chairman of the Haifa Municipality Integration Authority. Kaplon was twice elected to Haifa’s city council, serving a total of 10 years (2003-2008 and 2018-2023) for the Beiteinu Israel party. His roles included serving on financial committees, chairing the committee for financial assistance to NGOs, and heading the sports committee, among other duties.
“Although a large number of new immigrants arrive in Haifa,” Kaplon says, “young people continue to leave the city, housing inventory is destroyed, and the streets are dangerous and dirty. Young people are drawn to a city with affordable housing, developed infrastructure, leisure, and job opportunities.”
Kaplon’s plan appeals to both new immigrants and veterans, encompassing populist promises and goals ranging from garbage collection and parking improvements to women’s rights and the construction of new neighborhoods.
Other Russian Voices in Haifa Politics
- Lawyer Marina Bernovskaya: On Avichai Han’s “Greens” list.
- Public Activist Olika Nebrotskaya: On Einat Kalish’s “Life in Haifa” list.
- Party Activist Tatiana John and Athlete Artem Khartsenko: On the “Haifa Beiteinu” List.
- Public Activist Valeria Meir, Businessman Roman Bashe, World Kickboxing Champion Yulia Szechova, and Lawyer Rita Chayeekina: On Lazar Kaplon’s “Da, Haifa” list.
These individuals represent the variety and influence of the Russian-speaking community in Haifa’s political landscape, with the potential to significantly impact the upcoming elections.
The Arab Voice
The Arab community in Haifa comprises a significant but often underrepresented portion of the city’s population. With specific challenges and complex political dynamics, understanding the Arab voice in Haifa requires careful attention to the historical and contemporary factors at play.
Voter Turnout and Party Preferences
The Arab voter turnout in Haifa is relatively low, constituting only about 12% of the voters. In the last Knesset elections, less than half of the Arab voters cast their ballots. Parties like “Hadash Ta’al” received about 6% of the votes, while the “Ra’am” party, led by Mansour Abbas, earned around 0.8%. In previous elections, these lists ran jointly and secured approximately 7% of Haifa’s votes. During the last municipal elections, the Arab vote was divided among different factions, leading to mixed results.
City Council Representation
Two Arab city council members from Hadash, Ragaa Za’atra, and Shahira Shalabi, initially joined the coalition but experienced a complex dynamic with the administration. Following shifts in the coalition, Shalabi was displaced from the deputy mayor’s role, resulting in sporadic collaboration between Hadash and both the coalition and the opposition.
Za’atra, who had previously resigned from the city council and relocated to Egypt, has recently declared his candidacy to represent Hadash again on the city council, aiming to secure four mandates.
The Arab residents’ dissatisfaction with Mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem’s handling of the events in May 2021 has been evident. Widespread disillusionment with the administration is prevalent but there’s also a notable level of dissatisfaction with Yona Yahav’s position. Yahav’s call to suppress Arab citizens’ protests in Haifa has not been well received either.
Upcoming Municipal Elections
The forthcoming municipal elections are poised for heightened rivalry, particularly within Balad, where independent activists are also considering running. The potential inclusion of the Arab city spokesperson, Fakhr Biadsi, as a candidate on the list led by Za’atra, introduces an additional dimension to the political landscape.
A Disconnect with Municipal Services
The perceived shortage of municipal services for Arabs among Arab residents contributes to a prevailing sense of detachment from the electoral process. This disconnect is further accentuated by the fact that a substantial portion of Haifa’s Arab residents belong to the middle class. Oftentimes, this demographic opts to abstain from participating in elections due to their discontent with the quality of services offered.
“Red Haifa” was once a term synonymous with the city’s vibrant left-wing and socialist political culture. However, in recent years, changes in the political landscape have called into question whether this characterization still applies.
The Decline of Traditional Leftist Parties
The two prominent parties with a historical association with leftist principles in Haifa have encountered difficulties:
Meretz: Meretz has experienced fragmentation, with its municipal representative currently residing abroad. Meretz, who was once a champion of progressive and social democratic ideals, experiencing this decline mirrors broader changes within Israeli political dynamics.
Labor Party: Led by MK Naama Lazimi, who also held a seat on the city council, the Labor Party has decided not to participate in the forthcoming municipal elections. This choice mirrors the party’s national-level struggles and challenges.
Protests and New Political Movements
Despite the decline of these traditional left-wing parties, political activism and opposition to government policies remain strong in Haifa. The effort to counter government actions perceived as threats to democracy has united a wide spectrum of the population.A growing coalition, led by Jews, is spearheading “The Front Against the Occupation.” This group’s involvement in the Haifa protests is notable, although finding a clear political alignment for them is currently difficult. The objection of the Haifa police commander to Front members carrying the Palestinian flag further complicates their political positioning.
A recent development in Haifa’s political landscape is the establishment of a local branch for the political organization “Standing Together.” Dedicated to fostering Jewish-Arab collaboration and advancing social justice, this group has declared its intention to participate in the city council elections.
This move has generated some friction with Hadash, given that numerous members of “Standing Together” previously had affiliations with Hadash. The latter perceives them as a potential challenge.
The Ultra-Orthodox Voice
Despite constituting a relatively small percentage of Haifa’s voting population, the ultra-Orthodox communities have managed to exert significant influence. The cooperation among Agudat Yisrael, Degel HaTorah, and Shas has given them collective bargaining power.
Currently, the ultra-Orthodox factions are not adopting extreme positions on issues such as public transportation and business operations on Shabbat. Nevertheless, this perspective might change, particularly if the Likud and extreme right-wing parties gain more influence.
Their potential influence holds substantial weight, as it could prove crucial for any future coalition formation. This would grant them the ability to set conditions and exert significant influence on policy matters.
The Extreme Right
The extreme right in Haifa is displaying increased confidence and ambition:
The Religious Zionists have witnessed substantial growth in Haifa, doubling their share of the vote in recent elections. Figures like Yoav Ramati are working to reshape the right-wing political landscape in the city by positioning themselves to the right of Likud.
Both Likud and Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of Otzma Yehudit, have focused their efforts on Haifa, highlighting the strategic significance of the city. Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, secured an impressive 26% of the votes in the recent 25th Knesset elections in Haifa. However, the party’s municipal campaign has not yet been launched.
Although it dropped to second place in the city, Likud is actively concentrating on Haifa and has already initiated its campaign. Led by Benny Gantz, the State Camp has experienced a growth in support in Haifa, indicating increased backing for the party within the city.
The city’s political landscape mirrors a microcosm of national politics, encompassing ultra-Orthodox, right-wing, and centrist factions all vying for influence. The diverse range of interests and the potential for various coalitions to emerge contribute to an environment of unpredictability.
The early campaigning efforts by certain parties and the slower organizational pace of others introduce both opportunities and risks. Commencing the campaign early can generate momentum, yet the intricate political terrain underscores that missteps could yield substantial repercussions.
Considering the array of diverse political perspectives and the marked interest of influential national parties in Haifa’s political scene, the forthcoming municipal elections are poised to captivate close attention. These elections carry the potential not only to shape local policies but also to serve as a reflection of broader trends and transformations within Israeli politics.
Undoubtedly, the upcoming municipal elections will stand as a pivotal juncture for Haifa, as an array of political voices strives to imprint their influence on the city’s governance. The impending contest warrants attentive observation for those seeking insights into Israel’s evolving political landscape.