NAZARETH, Israel – Ramiz Jaraisi has been the mayor of this bustling Arab city in northern Israel for nearly 20 years. For 20 years before that, he served as deputy mayor. The local party list he heads, the Nazareth Democratic Front, a coalition of the Communist Party and other groups, has been running the city since 1975.
Jaraisi, 61, greets visitors to City Hall in a conference room lined with glass cases displaying glass from the Roman and Byzantine Era, Umayyad period coins and Mamluk ceramic bowls. On the wall outside are framed photographs of previous mayors of Nazareth going back to 1875, all male, many of them with mustaches and wearing Turkish-style fez hats.
There is a lot to be said for tradition and continuity in a city revered by Christians as the childhood home of Jesus. Though the city’s population of 80,000 is now about 70 percent Muslim, much of the economy of Nazareth, considered the capital of Israel’s Arab minority, depends on the tourism generated by its Christian past.
"This is one of the most well-known cities in the world, the place where Christianity started," said Jaraisi, a Christian, whose hair and mustache have turned white on the job.
But others in Nazareth say it is time for change. Jaraisi has been elected mayor four times, with the votes of both Muslims and Christians, he is quick to point out. Now, in the municipal elections scheduled for Israel’s local authorities on Tuesday, he is facing a serious challenge.
Ali Salam, Jaraisi’s former deputy, is one of four candidates running against him. Another strong contender is Haneen Zoabi, 44, a Muslim woman and a firebrand member of the Israeli Parliament representing Balad, an Arab national party.
Known as one of Israel’s feistiest Arab politicians, Zoabi gained widespread notoriety in Israel for being on board the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship that was raided by Israel as it tried to breach the naval blockade of Gaza in 2010. Nine activists were killed as Israeli commandos met with violent resistance as they landed on the deck. Israeli right-wingers have since tried to get Zoabi thrown out of Parliament.
But, Zoabi said, the flotilla episode has helped her by showing her constituents that she acts on her beliefs and not according to political calculations.
"I would do the same with the municipality, and this gives people confidence," she said in a recent meeting with reporters at her party headquarters here, where the wall decorations include a photocopy of the masked image that represents Anonymous, the shadowy international computer hacking network.
"I represent another generation, a younger generation," she added. "I think it is a phenomenon in the Arab world."
Municipal elections are mostly dull affairs in Israel, but this time, a few of the races are gaining national attention. In Jerusalem, the incumbent, Nir Barkat, a secular rightist who has increased cultural activities and attracted numerous international events to West Jerusalem in the past few years, is being challenged by Moshe Lion, a former civil servant who recently moved to the city from a Tel Aviv suburb. Lion was recruited to run by Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, with the backing of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party.
That race and another in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town in central Israel, are seen as a test of Shas’ strength after the recent death of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
In Tel Aviv, an openly gay lawmaker from the leftist Meretz Party, Nitzan Horowitz, is running against the incumbent, Ron Huldai, and in Beit Shemesh, a town troubled by social tensions and struggles over religious extremism, the ultra-Orthodox incumbent is being challenged by a moderate candidate.
In Nazareth, which is dominated by the Church of the Annunciation and is rich in other Christian pilgrimage sites, the argument is about modernizing the city’s services and cultural offerings.
One of the challenges that Jaraisi is facing is what Wadie Abu Nassar, an Arab Israeli political analyst, calls "the Arab Spring argument – that it is time to change." Another is an accusation of mismanagement, Abu Nassar said.
Jaraisi is hoping to draw at least 40 percent of the vote and win in the first round. If not, Abu Nassar said, he might face an alliance of opponents in a runoff.
Residents of Nazareth complain that there are no safe playgrounds for children, no movie theaters and not enough housing. More than 1,000 residents a year move out, many of them to Upper Nazareth, an adjacent town established in the 1950s, even though the Jewish mayor insists on retaining its Jewish character to the point where he has refused to consider opening an Arabic-language school.
Despite some signs of modernity – a mall at the entrance of the city with stores like Zara and American Eagle Outfitters, and a car accessory store called Pimp My Car – the main commercial street is a traffic-clogged artery lacking proper sidewalks or adequate parking. People complain that the town center goes dead by 8 p.m. Most tourists spend only a few hours in the city.
"Nazareth is stuck in the 20th century – in the 1970s or ’80s," said Ola Najjar, 41, a Christian administrative director of a company and a mother of two who is running on Zoabi’s list for the town council. "We want to live in the year 2013."
Both Jaraisi, who is known for his good relations with the Israeli establishment, and Zoabi say many of the city’s problems are the result of decades of state discrimination against the Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population of 8 million.
But Zoabi also blames Jaraisi, whom she describes as "lazy" and lacking vision. He has good ties with the establishment, she said, "because he doesn’t demand anything, so we do not benefit from this love affair between the state and the mayor."
Nazareth, Zoabi said, should be a cultural center for the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. "Nazareth is not just a city," she said. "It is a symbol of the homeland that we lost."
Jaraisi, who helped calm Christian-Muslim tensions in the city after a dispute in the late 1990s over plans to build a large mosque in the plaza in front of the Church of the Annunciation, said Zoabi knew nothing about administering a municipality.
"I asked her, ‘What did you do for your city as a member of Parliament?’" he said.
Another criticism is that Zoabi is not running for the City Council; if she loses the mayoral race, she intends to go back to Parliament, she said.
Jaraisi is promising to build new neighborhoods and says that construction on a cultural center with an auditorium, one of the largest in the north, will begin in 2014.
Zoabi’s campaign brochure complains that Jaraisi and the Democratic Front have been promising to build the cultural center for the past 10 years.
"Life is to struggle," Zoabi said, adding that even if the Israeli authorities hate her, as mayor she can go to court and mobilize "80,000 Haneen Zoabis" to demonstrate.