Transitioning from Safra Square to the Knesset

A significant number of city council members have moved from Jerusalem City Hall at Safra Square to the Knesset, some even becoming cabinet ministers.

Israel's Knesset (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israel's Knesset
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Over the years, a significant number of city council members have moved from Jerusalem City Hall at Safra Square to the Knesset, some even becoming cabinet ministers.
Now, Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe (Bayit Yehudi) has announced her intention to run for her party's top position on the national level, hoping to lead it in the Knesset following the March 23 election.
This is an opportune time to take a look at the phenomenon of transitioning from local politics to the Israeli parliament.
What benefits, but also difficulties, await a local council member who evolves into a parliamentarian?
The Shas party first emerged on the Jerusalem City Council, with members taking on local leadership positions but them becoming MKs and ministers. A mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert (Likud), later reached the national pinnacle by becoming prime minister, though by that point having joined the Kadima party.
There appears to be widspread agreement that while both governmental bodies represent the will of the people, the differences are so vast that one cannot speak of the Knesset as being just more of the same compared to the city council.
However, MK Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism) says there is a common denominator which stands out.
 “I can easily tell apart which MK served on a local council before he reached the Knesset and one who never did,” Pindrus told In Jerusalem in a phone conversation from the Knesset.
He served as the mayor of a haredi town, Beitar Illit, for six years beginning in 2001, and later, in 2008 after moving to the capital, as a deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
Currently viewed as a rising star in the haredi benches of the Knesset, Pindrus talks about the two very different worlds of a city council and parliament. He describes local political life as more flexible as opposed to the national scene, which runs in a more organized manner.
“The Knesset works on the basis of rules, of orders, agreements and regulations. You must know them before you make any move. That’s exactly the point where you can tell... someone coming from a council.”
Rachel Azaria served as an MK from 2015 to 2019. First, however, she was among the founders and the first leader of the Yerushalmim movement in Jerusalem. She held the top spot representing the Yerushalmit faction in the city council under mayor Nir Barkat.
She left the local scene to join former minister Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party, and served as an MK in that framework.
Azaria says that not understanding the fundamental differences between the two institutions will automatically lead to total failure.
“In a local council, the mayor is a king. Whatever he wants to achieve, he can do; he has the tools to promote decisions and establish facts on the ground. At the Knesset it is exactly the opposite. You have to create alliances, to work together with other MKs, to reach agreement, to give something in order to get something. That’s how it works, and those who do not understand that won’t succeed to move ahead there.”
AZARIA ECHOES Pindrus in saying that the first thing required from an MK is learning the rules and regulations of the House.
“They are many and they are quite complex, and you can’t move without knowing them by heart,” she says, adding that in the Knesset, “before you start anything... you have to work in the committees with the members, according to each committee’s regulations, totally different from what you do when representing a sector at a local council.”
Yet Pindrus counters that he was able to mix his experience as a local politician with the different landscape he encountered when he arrived to serve in the Knesset. “You represent a sector, but you work according to the rules of the House,” he says, acknowledging that “if you don’t understand [the rules] you get lost in the bureaucracy.”
As for Moshe, the decision to move on to the Knesset is linked to a totally different issue. She had already periodically hinted at her intention to seek a seat in the Knesset someday but until last week, it didn’t seem planned for the foreseeable future.
What changed all that, however, was apparently a call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud and asked her point-blank to run for the leadership of Bayit Yehudi.
“I believe in a sectoral movement,” she says. “Mine is the party that represents the religious sector in Israel, from the Hardal yeshivas to the light religious – they are all inside the same movement in my eyes – and I want to lead them to the top possibilities to do the best for that sector. We are the religious and Zionist sector of the Israeli population and as such, we have a lot of shared views and goals, and that is the job I want to do.”
Moshe says the differences in the way things work at the Knesset do not seem to be a problem for her.
“I have gathered a lot of essential experience for this day,” she said as she was about to enter a party meeting to discuss this very issue.
“I have been the first religious woman to head the most important committee on a local council, the finance committee, in the former council under mayor Barkat. And today I am heading the education portfolio for Jerusalem, the largest in the country. I have a clear idea of what has to be done, so yes: I was asked by the prime minister to run and I am running for something I believe in.”
If she reaches the Knesset in the March election, Moshe will meet a few of her former peers from the Jerusalem City Council there – not just Pindrus, but also Uri Maklev and Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism; as well as Barkat, now a Likud MK, who had given her the first chance to reach a high position as chairwoman of the Jerusalem finance committee. All of them will perhaps use their past experience from Safra Square, even if they are working from different parties. Something this experience has taught them is the understanding that once in the Knesset, the outlook has to be wider.
“Once you become an MK you have to see a larger picture,” notes Pindrus. “You represent a certain part of the public that has sent you there, but you become part of something larger.”