After 28 years as mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek is in danger of losing his job.
At the age of 82, Kollek is a grand old man of Israeli politics. Finishing his sixth term as mayor, he remains enormously popular with ordinary people, who rush up to shake his hand and then complain about high municipal taxes or the cost of building the new City Hall.
Never shy to voice their opinions, Jerusalemites are wondering out loud whether their venerable mayor is too old to run for office yet again.
With the election next week, Kollek and his opponent, Ehud Olmert, are waging a battle for voters. Although clean by American standards, their respective campaigns have, on occasion, hit below the belt.
Kollek’s campaign has focused on Olmert’s lack of experience in running a city.
Olmert, a member of the Knesset from the Likud and a former health minister, has wasted no opportunity to portray Kollek as an old man whose time has passed.
The question is: Can Kollek complete another term in office?
Many think he cannot. They believe that, if re-elected, Kollek would hand over his post to an as-yet-unnamed successor within a few months.
Olmert is capitalizing on this assumption.
In one commercial, playing in local movie theaters, a roving reporter asks city-dwellers whether they plan to vote for Kollek. In the mall or on the street, people express their utmost respect for Kollek but say he is simply too old to continue.
“Teddy,” one middle-aged man affectionately says in the commercial, “has done more for Jerusalem than anyone else. But it’s time he moved aside and retired gracefully.”
Asked point-blank whether he is too old to run for office again, Kollek said, “The people will have to decide that for themselves.”
LABOR SUCCESS MADE HIM RECONSIDER RETIRING
During an interview in his office in September, a day after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House, Kollek admitted that he had planned to retire at the end of this term.
The success of the Labor Party in last year’s general elections led him to reconsider, he said.
“When Labor won, I felt” that “the government would really try very hard to change the situation, as it has now proven.
“I believed (this progress) would have tremendous influence on Jerusalem, and vice versa; that whatever would happen in Jerusalem would have great influence on the possible success or failure of the government’s attempts to come to some kind of arrangement with the Arabs — to heal the wounds.”
A longtime proponent of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, Kollek nonetheless foresees many bumps on the road to peace. “There are violent groups against (the agreement), there is split in the Jewish people over the issue, both in Israel and abroad.”
Kollek takes a pragmatic view when asked if he sees Jerusalem as a model of coexistence. “The amount of violence here is comparatively insignificant to what it might be or what people prophesied for it.”
But, he said, “We still have people who see a wall of fear between here and Arab parts of town, who are afraid” when they see Arabs.
Still, he added, “Jerusalem is a lot better than major cities in other parts of the world, including American cities. Our children still walk around alone in the evening.”
Despite his positive attitude, the mayor is clearly worried about statements by Arafat and others claiming that eastern Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Immediately after the Israeli-PLO accord was signed in Washington, Kollek called an emergency meeting of the City Council to reaffirm the city’s status as “the capital of Israel, united under Israeli sovereignty and administered by one municipality.”
“The Palestinian delegation says east Jerusalem will be capital of Palestine? Some years ago they vowed to throw us all into the sea. They’ve come a few steps forward by recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Now they’ll have to go a step further,” Kollek said.
‘JERUSALEM CANNOT BE THEIR CAPITAL’
Kollek believes that “the Palestinians have every right to expect that their religious and cultural heritage will be fully observed, and we have done a great deal to do this.”
“Jews all over the world were held together for 2,000 years by the dream of the Temple Mount, of the Temple being restored. The Temple Mount is in the hands of the Moslems.
“We told them this doesn’t mean sovereignty; it means absolute freedom of religion. It’s limited in time until the Messiah comes. Then he will decide to whom it belongs. I think we have gone much farther than anybody, ever, to ensure freedom of religion,” he said.
“The Jordanians didn’t allow Christians, Jews or Moslems to go to their holy places during 19 years of Jordanian occupation. I think the demand for a secular authority for Jerusalem is unwarranted. It never existed,” Kollek said.
He noted that “in the agreement just signed, it says that the question of Jerusalem will not be discussed for a three years. The Arabs won’t give up their demands for Jerusalem easily. And we cannot give in and compromise on Jerusalem. They accepted Israel only because they came to the conclusion they can’t defeat us.”
Looking ahead, he says, “During the next three years we must strengthen the city to such an extent that they will come to the conclusion that Jerusalem cannot be their capital.
“This can only be done if we have a very strong immigration to Jerusalem,” he said.
With typical frankness, Kollek called on Diaspora Jews to lend a hand for a unified Jerusalem. “Diaspora Jewry has a tremendous job to do. I’ve tried for years to say this to Jewish leaders, without any success.”
He added, “I hope that the present situation will make it clear that assistance to Jerusalem must go beyond quoting slogans and Bible verses. What we need is more development, more tourism directed toward the city.”
The Israel-PLO accord, Kollek said, is “not an easy situation. But it’s a price we’re paying for the hope that those children who just started school this year will not have to go to war.”