MAYORAL ELECTION: A woman in the arena

We talk with MK Rachel Azaria, who got her political start here in Jerusalem and has shaken up the mayoral race by throwing her hat into the ring.

Mayoral candidate and MK Rachel Azaria (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayoral candidate and MK Rachel Azaria
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was in the air for a few days already, but constantly denied – until, in a surprising twist, it appeared as a small news item in the middle of the night on Ynet – MK Rachel Azaria had decided to run for the position of mayor of Jerusalem.
The hasty announcement was soon followed by a trail of rumors claiming that she had decided to run only after she found out that Moshe Kahlon, the head of her Kulanu Party in the Knesset, had no intention of giving her a realistic place on the list for the next Knesset election.
“She urgently needed something else to continue her political career, and Jerusalem was the first and natural choice – although her chances are close to zero,” explained a city council member. Others said that at a certain point, Azaria would join Ze’ev Elkin and be his No. 2.
Azaria had refused to relate to either of those points, and has kept to her official position for running – her desire to come back to Jerusalem’s affairs. Sources say that an eventual cooperation between Elkin and Kulanu was on the table long before Azaria made her decision, and even before Elkin was sure he would run.
Azaria, who started her political career as a feminist fighting against gender separation in the public space, plans to continue this struggle as a major issue, according to sources close to her. She said that she welcomes any help from anyone promoting women’s rights.
In her office at the Knesset on Monday, Azaria broke her silence about the Kulanu rumors and about her reasons to run for mayor of Jerusalem.
“I simply felt a growing nostalgia for Jerusalem and for what I can do there. It’s a very different way of working in a municipality, where contacts with the citizens – the residents – is so close and easy and warm.”
This led right into her bombshell: “I made that decision 24 hours after Moshe [Kahlon] called me into his office to talk about giving me a ministry in the next government.”
So are you telling us that even though you are on the trail to a steady political position in the Knesset, you chose to leave it all behind just because you feel longings for Safra Square and municipal issues?
Yes. And it’s not just nostalgia, it’s the different way things can be done and promoted at a municipal level. Here at the Knesset, I promote the laws, I make the rules that change our daily life on the ground. But I found out that I remained at the rules level, not being in touch with the reality on the ground that is changed through these laws. I wanted to get back to Jerusalem, to the work that has to be done here, now, in my city. Also, I believe that the future of the State of Israel is to be found firstly here, in Jerusalem. In fact, I went into politics for Jerusalem from the beginning.
Can you give us some more concrete examples?
Take the planning and constructing field. At the Knesset I have been promoting and pushing the laws for a real revolution in terms of urban renewal and planning – but when it comes to implementation, I am not there, on the ground. I strongly believe that the process of renewing the city is immensely important and it has an impact on every aspect of this city. I have also always said that whatever starts here in Jerusalem will happen in the rest of the country. This is the most crucial starting point – I wanted to be part of it, to lead it. Public transportation, the evacuation-construction projects – the first of them is in Jerusalem.
How did your three years at the Knesset influence your ties with your local constituencies? Did you feel you were driven away from your community by being busy over there, away from city affairs?
The Knesset is a place of division, while the place where I came from and grew up – the Yerushalmim – we were always the ones who promoted cooperation, working with everybody. We, the Jerusalemites, have gone through a deep and fascinating process, which led us to realize that we have to work together, beyond our differences. At the Knesset, they are still far from that knowledge. In Jerusalem we understand today that no one and no part is going to disappear, so we have to work together. We are a decade ahead of the rest of the country, and you can see that at the Knesset, where division and splits are the name of the game.
Will you promote, at a certain point in your campaign, this idea of working together and putting some of the ego aside, as you keep saying?
One of the first things I did after announcing [my candidacy] was to phone all the candidates and propose, as much as possible, working together.
Let’s imagine you’re there, you’re elected – what will be your major field of interest?
Planning and constructing and renewing the city. We will have to build many hi-rises, but with good planning, it can be the most pleasant city to live in. Think of New York, of Paris – we can have that here.
Let’s get back to what awaits you in the campaign. You are now identified with Kulanu, but what does it mean to the people in your neighborhood, in your synagogue, in your community and above all – to the Jerusalemites who vote for Yerushalmim?
Judging by the intensiveness of the reactions immediately following my announcement, then yes – I can say that I am considered to be a serious power in the political field in this city. For some I am even a threat; for the others, who know me and have worked with me for years, I am the best answer.
However, if indeed Kobi Kahlon [Moshe’s brother] – who is also identified with Kulanu like you – decides to run, there are no signs that you are going to work hand in hand. If you are not joining forces with Kobi Kahlon, and an eventual alliance with Ze’ev Elkin is not on the horizon – at least for now – who is backing you?
Yerushalmim of course – they are my home ground. I have been, am and will be first of all a Jerusalemite… and our credo is always partnership, with everyone…
But still, there is such a high level of diversity and division among the pluralist lists. What are you ready to do about that? What can you do?
One thing is clear – as we get closer to the elections, we will all have to talk to each other. I am convinced that at the crucial point, the pluralist camp will understand that this is the right thing to do – to work together.