Taking the high road

A number of Jerusalem city councillors have left Safra Square to gain high-profile Knesset positions over the past decades

safra square 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
safra square 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On the sixth story of the main building at Safra Square, where the mayor’s offices are located, one can see a long row of photos depicting the former mayors and city council members over the years. While most of the faces are almost unknown to the public, there are a few that are easily recognizable, since they have remained in the country’s political spotlight.
It seems that once one becomes a representative of a local constituency, the chances of abandoning political pursuits after a few years are slim; in fact, for most people, it leads to more such activity. For example, those who start off as city councillors may well continue to what some consider “the real thing” – the Knesset.
“It is like an incubator,” says Anat Hoffman, who spent 14 years on the city council – first as a member of the coalition and a deputy (without a salary) to former mayor Teddy Kollek, then as a major rival to mayor Ehud Olmert for two terms. Hoffman also tried to move from the city council to the Knesset (as a Meretz candidate), but failed to achieve that dream (she managed to get an unrealistic spot on the list and eventually dropped out). Nevertheless, she maintains that representing a constituency is basically the same task, “whether you represent your neighbors in your building or the people who voted for you in a political party. It’s all about leading and representing.”
Some have pointed out that – with the exception of approval for considerable budgets to aid large-scale construction projects, such as the Olmert-led light rail and Begin Highway – it is rare for the city to see any specific benefit from its councillors becoming Knesset members or even joining the upper echelons of the government.
“What you see from here is apparently not what you see once there [in the government],” Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalu of Meretz sums up. “The only case in which we did get some help to advance our needs could be the former spokesmen of the municipality during [mayor Uri] Lupolianski’s term – Gil Sheffer and Gidi Shmerling – who joined the Prime Minister’s Office. [They] have done a lot to bring the special needs of the city to the attention of those who make the decisions, but I can’t remember any city councillor who did much.”
In this regard, Mayor Nir Barkat understands that unless the mayor is a representative of a large party – preferably one in the government – it is difficult to obtain the level of support the city needs. Barkat hinted recently that he would gladly accept the task of representing the Likud as the next mayor – but so far, it seems that despite all the issues at stake regarding the city’s fate, neither the Likud nor Labor, nor even Bayit Yehudi, is considering nominating a mayoral candidate to represent them.
ONE OF the most famous former city councillors who became an MK is Eli Yishai, who started as a personal assistant to then-city councilman Nissim Ze’ev. At the time, Ze’ev was representing a new and little-known group called Sephardim Shomrei Torah (Torah- Observant Sephardim) – later known as Shas.
Yishai started his political life as a member of the Jerusalem City Council from 1987 to 1988, while Ze’ev moved to the Knesset. Yishai briefly hired a young assistant, who was soon to become famous – Arye Deri was his name.
Deri was never a city councilman; his political ascension led him rapidly to the Interior Ministry, which was in Shas’s hands following the 1988 elections. He served as the country’s youngest interior minister, and the rest is history.
As for Yishai, he remained on the city council until 1996, when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s decision sent him to the Knesset.
After Deri was sentenced to prison in 1999, Yishai became Shas’s political leader. Today, the two are back on the same bench as the official leaders of the party.
Ze’ev, meanwhile – the first to “invent” the concept of a Sephardi haredi party to represent that sector of Jerusalem’s population, never dreaming it would turn into a national-level party – is still on the Shas list in the Knesset. He served in the IDF, graduated from Jerusalem’s prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva, and spent a year as a cantor at a large Sephardi synagogue in Brooklyn between 1974 and 1982. After founding the Association of Sephardim Shomrei Torah in 1983, he was elected to the city council, where he served twice as deputy mayor to Kollek (1983-1993), then as deputy during Olmert’s first mayoral term, from 1993-1998. He later resigned to move to the Knesset.
NO LESS prominent is Dalia Itzik, who started her public life as head of the teachers’ association in the city, then became a Labor city councilwoman and was soon appointed Kollek’s deputy. Although Kollek ran at the head of an independent list, it was clear how important the city was for the Labor Party, which led the country in those days. Itzik was elected an MK in 1992. She refused to be Labor’s candidate for mayor in the November 1993 elections in which Kollek lost to Olmert, as she was already a promising MK, and she expected to become a minister soon.
She did even better and became Knesset Speaker, still in the ranks of Labor.
Olmert held the mayoralty of Jerusalem for two terms, until February 2006. That year, Itzik swore allegiance to him as he became, overnight, the leader of the Kadima party to which both had moved (from the Labor and Likud parties, respectively), following Ariel Sharon.
Today, 20 years after the two were fiercely opposed on the issue of leading Jerusalem, neither Olmert nor Itzik holds a leading position in the Knesset. Having acquired the post of prime minister, Olmert resigned following his indictment in various corruption cases; today he is not even an MK. As for Itzik, after reaching the conclusion that her chances of being in a realistic slot on the next Kadima list were slim, she announced last month that she was taking time off from political life and would not be a member of the 19th Knesset.
THE MAN who replaced Itzik as Knesset Speaker in 2009 was the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, who has been designated more than once as a possible candidate for Jerusalem mayor. So far, he has stuck to the Knesset, but he, too, started his political career on the city council, during 1978-1983.
In 1988, while he was Kollek’s deputy, he did seriously consider running in the mayoral elections. But for internal Likud reasons, the party ultimately chose Shmuel Pressburger, another member of the local Likud branch, as its candidate to run against Kollek.
Pressburger – who failed to win that election – was a close follower of Olmert, who defeated Kollek a few years later.
As a result of a longtime antagonism between the two, Olmert refused to include Rivlin in his city council list. Rivlin remained in the Knesset and was appointed Speaker in 2003 – the same year Olmert left the city’s helm to become deputy to prime minister Sharon. Rivlin was reelected to the post in 2009, but not before he lost to Shimon Peres in the 2007 presidential vote. Today, Rivlin is considered the leading candidate for the presidency if Peres does not decide to run again.
On the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox benches, some members went the same way – from Safra Square to the Givat Ram parliament compound. Meir Porush was the first to go both ways, or at least to try. After being a city councillor for 13 years – seven of them as deputy mayor to Kollek – Porush moved to the Knesset.
“In our ranks, it is not the result of one’s specific merits or acts, although this is of course taken into account,” explains current deputy mayor Yitzhak Pindrus, who represents United Torah Judaism.
“Our rabbis decide, mostly according to the inner make-up of membership, of the many groups that form the party itself. So Porush moved from city council to the Knesset when it was time for his [faction], Shlomei Emunim, to reach that position.”
During his years on the city council, Porush held the portfolio for improving the city, and later the haredi education portfolio. Politics apparently runs in his family: His father, the late Menahem Porush, was a Knesset member, and his son, Israel Porush, is deputy mayor of Elad. In 2008, Meir Porush, then already a deputy minister, tried to go back and run for mayor of Jerusalem. As in Rivlin’s case a few years earlier, internal interests had won over poll forecasts; Porush ran instead of incumbent UTJ mayor Lupolianski – and lost to Barkat.
ANOTHER MEMBER of the haredi benches who made the move to the Knesset is Uri Maklev. Until four years ago, he was deputy mayor to Lupolianski, and he has since become a UTJ MK.
Maklev, who belongs to the party’s Degel Hatorah faction, representing the Lithuanian haredi constituency, reached the Knesset for the same reasons Porush did: because it was his turn according to the complicated but strict rotation and appointment system inside the movement. In that regard, Pindrus and the list’s second deputy mayor, Yossi Deitch, will have their turns in the Knesset in due course – unless the internal tensions among the different factions bring the haredi Ashkenazi party to a split before then.
Eli Gabai, from what used to be the National Religious Party, was a city council member between 1993 and 1998 before he moved to the Knesset. He was a member of the local planning and construction committee, which was chaired by UTJ representatives – first Porush, then Lupolianski, and later Yehoshua Pollack. From 1997 to 1998, he was also deputy mayor to Olmert. But Gabai left a legacy at the city council: His son, Yair Gabai, who began his service in the ranks of the NRP-Bayit Yehudi and then quit the list, became an independent city councillor and recently failed to get a realistic spot on the next Likud list. For the moment, it is not clear whether the younger Gabai will remain on the city council or decide to move on.
TWO FORMER Kollek assistants have gone quite far on the political scene since their debuts at city council. One is current Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav; the other is venture capitalist Erel Margalit, who is No. 8 on Labor’s next Knesset list.
The Haifa-born Yahav came to Jerusalem as a student, was elected president of the local students’ association and soon became Kollek’s assistant and spokesman. Toward 1993, he returned to his home town, where he became mayor Amram Mitzna’s assistant; in 1996, he made a successful bid for a seat on the Labor Party’s Knesset list. After serving as an MK until 1999, he decided to run for the mayoral post in his native town, which he won in 2003 as a representative of the Shinui Party. Today he represents the Kadima party.
Margalit, who also came to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University, became director of the Jerusalem Development Department (then a section inside the municipality and not yet an independent authority) after his stint as Kollek’s assistant.
He then left to develop a career in hi-tech and investment. Considered an alternative to Barkat for the Jerusalem mayoralty for a while, Margalit decided a year and a half ago to focus on entering the Knesset as a Labor representative. The No. 8 slot is a promising one, and if he does get into the Knesset, he will be the latest former Jerusalem municipal official to make that shift.
Candid candidates
The tradition of city councilors advancing in public life and going on to the Knesset, eventually even becoming part of the government, has continued over the years.
Two current council members are on their way to exchanging their seats at Safra Square for a position in the Knesset. In one case it is a done deal – there is no doubt that the person in question will become a member of the 19th Knesset following the January 22 elections. In the second case, it may or may not happen, and the person stands the risk of losing it all – both a seat on the city council and not obtaining entrance to the Knesset. It is interesting to note that this is a young woman whose stint on Jerusalem’s city council was her first encounter with political life.
Merav Cohen is the first city councillor who has decided to try for the Knesset and openly admits that she is doing so to be able to attain better results for her plans for Jerusalem. Whether that comes from a naïve attitude or from a matter-of-fact assessment of the situation, Cohen says simply – and quite bluntly – that the city council is nice, but it doesn’t deliver the goods. After four years on the city council – the first two as a close assistant to Ofer Berkovitch, one in her Hitorerut B’yerushalayim party and one as a city council member – Cohen has the courage to say what others have never dared to say openly.
Namely, that in order to obtain the attention – and with it, the funds – required to achieve all the magnificent improvements she has in mind for the city, the Knesset or, better yet, the government itself, is the only viable address.
Cohen, 29, already has an impressive list of accomplishments in the public sphere. She worked at the Prime Minister’s Office (under Ariel Sharon) as spokeswoman for the economic plans of that government and was a journalist for a while. In 2007, while studying for a master’s degree, she joined forces with her friends to encourage young people to take part in the election process, arguing that the young secular generation should not remain indifferent to the haredization and impoverishment of the city.
“It’s time to wake up” was their slogan, which eventually became the basis for the name of their Hitorerut party.
But during the time she spent at Safra Square and in planning the various projects aimed to offer solutions for these young people to keep them here instead of losing them to Tel Aviv as was the case in the past two decades, Cohen also realized how helpless they could be. What had been only the germ of an idea for Cohen ultimately grew into a decisive action – to step into the political arena at the national level.
The choice of the Tzipi Livni Party was part of Cohen’s feminist agenda. She said that though that was a major part of her choice, she also believed in Livni’s socioeconomic message, which is close to the concept of a free-market economy, as long as it takes into consideration the need to support the less fortunate.
Affordable housing for young people, as well as increasing employment opportunities for the young and educated population, have been Cohen’s main areas of interest, but she admitted months ago that all the efforts made at the city council level would never match one decision made at the helm of the country – the only place where decisions could be transformed into realities and be backed by the required funding.
“I’m working very hard to make it come true,” she says. “Nothing is certain and the struggle is tough, but I am confident that my chances are good, and that my decision is the right one in order to really help improve things in Jerusalem, especially for the young generation.”
Cohen is ninth on the Tzipi Livni list, a position that can vary from realistic to unrealistic, depending on the polls.
The second Knesset candidate, Hilik Bar, a city council member and secretary-general of the Labor Party, will soon leave Safra Square. Bar entered the city council as a member of Barkat’s party Jerusalem Will Succeed and not as a member of Labor, which doesn’t have an official representative on the capital’s city council. Bar didn’t have to campaign for his seat in the Knesset because, according to the rules of the party, the secretary-general automatically gets a seat. While serving on the city council, Bar, who joined Barkat on a personal basis and not as a representative of Labor, ran for the post of secretary of the party’s Jerusalem district and was elected secretary-general of Labor a year ago. From then on, it was clear that he would not remain on the city council, since his seat in the Knesset was secure.