Steps in Arab-Jewish cooperation Mayors: At the Lyn P. Meyerhoff Forum, supported largely by a Baltimore-based foundation, leaders of local governments in Israel forge ties based on the shared experience of governing.

Sun Journal

December 04, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAESAREA, Israel -- About 40 Israeli Arabs and Jews gathered around a conference table recently to discuss the best way to manage conflict. It wasn't the fragile Middle East peace process that brought them to this seaside resort. They came to talk about the vexing problems of local government: land use, education, job development.

There were the mayor of an Arab village near Nazareth whose high school students threatened to strike, a regional council leader in the Negev desert needing land from a kibbutz to expand a college, the mayor of a Bedouin town trying to resolve family conflicts.

Here at the Lyn P. Meyerhoff Forum of Mayors, supported largely by a Baltimore-based foundation, leaders of local governments leave the usual political rhetoric behind. The forum tries to forge relationships based on the shared experience of governing.

"This organization shows you can sit together. Even if you don't agree, you can have a decent, civilized conversation," says Nissan Slomiansky, a religious Jew and mayor of El Kana. "We are talking about everything beside politics."

"This is the only place other Arab mayors and I can meet Jewish mayors without having the political conflicts of Arabs and Jews," says Shawi Khatib of Yaffa, a town of 13,000 near Nazareth.

But when asked, the participants speak freely about the conflicts that divide Israeli society -- secular vs. religious, Muslim vs. Jew -- and how those affect them.

Khatib talks about the unequal shares of government funds given to Israeli Arab towns compared with predominantly Jewish towns, the smaller portion historically going to the Israeli Arabs.

"Every Jewish [mayor] has more opportunities to invest," he says. "The infrastructure in his village is more and better than mine."

Shai Hermesh, head of a regional grouping of kibbutzim in the Negev, agrees with Khatib that the national government long favored Jewish communities. But Israel in the past four years realized it had to invest in its Arab citizens, or risk having them feel linked more to Palestinians.

"It did not cover the gap of 45 years," Hermesh says. "The only way to keep the Arab minority as part of Israeli society is by [making] them more and more to be equal to us. Today no one can complain."

Not every mayor would agree. Israeli Arab mayors have threatened to picket the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, to protest the near-bankruptcy of their municipalities and the central government's refusal to offer aid.

While Hermesh backed financial support for Israeli Arab towns, he is candid about his desire to see Jewish communities grow.

"It's a consensus of Jewish people that we have to do the maximum to be the majority," says Hermesh, 52, who lives in Kibbutz Azza, near the Gaza Strip. "We have only one country."

The forum of mayors is a select group, and that is reflected in the cooperation and respect evident among participants.

"There's a message here -- when you look at the polarization of Israeli society -- that there are many issues we can deal with together," says Shilo Gann, the mayor of a Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

When participants visited Maryland last year, that cooperative spirit showed. Ahmed Haj, the mayor of the Arab town of Kawkab, and Arik Raz, the Jewish former head of the adjoining regional council, successfully lobbied U.S. Jewish leaders for development dollars for the Arab village.

The forum, now in its third year, was the idea of the late Lyn P. Meyerhoff, a Republican Party activist and representative to the United Nations. Seeking to train community leaders, its seminars include land-use planning, school reform, suburbanization and financial management.

Lyn Meyerhoff, who died in 1988, "felt that Israeli municipal leaders could benefit from interaction from U.S. municipal leaders, not only for Israeli Arabs and Jews to learn from one another," says George B. Hess, of the Joseph Meyerhoff Funds Inc.

"The problem particularly notable in Israel was people became heads of municipalities with no training, no grounding at all in public service."

The recent seminar on conflict resolution and mediation may have provided Shai Hermesh with the answer to his problems with a neighboring kibbutz. Hermesh oversees 10 kibbutzim, a private ranch (that of former Gen. Ariel Sharon), a village of student immigrants and a college.

Hermesh has been trying to persuade a kibbutz to donate land to the ever-expanding college. But the kibbutz, which over the years provided land for the school, insists this time on being paid.

"I try to explain to them the college is their future," Hermesh says. "Part of the problem is they don't trust me."

The two sides were at a stalemate. But after attending the seminar on mediation, Hermesh sees a possible way out.

"This idea of mediation is new for me," he says.

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