Salah's decision to stay away from national politics has given him a kind of popularity no other Israeli-Arab leader appears to enjoy. The party deals instead with the issues of funding for municipal budgets, a sore point since Arab towns and schools generally receive lower allocations than Jewish ones. While other Arab politicians get tainted, either from wheeling and dealing or failing to deliver, Salah's reputation among followers is impeccable.
"One part of the Islamic movement runs for the Knesset and is very much involved in Israeli politics," says Hashem Mahameed, a former mayor and Knesset member affiliated with a left-wing socialist party. "The movement of Sheikh Raed Salah is trying to play the role of the pure Muslims who don't want to lie and play political games. Religion tells you to be straight as much as you can, and politics tell you the opposite."
When Salah's Islamic Movement of the North first came to power here, says Mr. Mahameed, secular people feared that an Iranian-style Islamic Revolution had arrived. His daughter stopped feeling comfortable going out as she chooses – without an Islamic head covering. The atmosphere mellowed, he says, but there is still a feeling of this city in Israel being run by Islamists. "They give money and all kinds of financial aid to people who are in need," he says, adding that the group has built more than 25 mosques in Umm el-Fahm, a town of about 43,000.
Similarities between Salah's group and another controversial Islamic party are numerous. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas's political wing swept to power in elections nine months ago largely because so many people saw them as a party of clean hands.
To Israeli authorities, the similarities were a little too striking. In 2003, Salah was arrested on suspicion of raising millions of dollars for Hamas. He was released two years later in a deal that bars him from going abroad and requires him to check in with an officer every month. The charges against him were a "mockery," Salah says.
Still, they made him even more popular. When he came back a year ago this summer, his image was everywhere – on posters and children's T-shirts.