Ehud Olmert’s career has been built on political wars and confrontations, he says, recalling with a certain amount of pride and bravado a tough, single-handed fight more than 15 years ago against organized crime.
The risk he took forced the now 48-year-old veteran Likud Knesset member to carry a gun in his belt and employ bodyguards around the clock.
“Whatever I do, I do with passion and total devotion — I don’t give up,” Olmert said of his working style. “I give them hell, I fight and I survive.”
Clearly the political combat training and the motto have equipped him to take the latest battle in stride and even appear to relish it.
Olmert is challenging the widely beloved octogenarian incumbent, Teddy Kollek, in an extraordinarily bitter, heated and increasingly dirty contest for the mayor of Jerusalem.
Independent surveys indicate that Olmert, a former Cabinet minister who has been tagged by one newspaper as a “pit bull of politics,” has a chance of unseating “Teddy,” as Kollek is universally called.
With elections scheduled for Nov. 2, there are reportedly as many undecided voters as there are supporters for each candidate.
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in his campaign headquarters in Jerusalem’s industrial Talpiyot neighborhood, Olmert called the race against him “brutal.” It is “the worst smear campaign I’ve seen in the history of Israel” and is a function of the mayor’s “desperation, a last resort,” he said.
Kollek’s campaign has focused its attacks on Olmert’s character and old allegations of misconduct that Olmert says were proven to be untrue.
He attacks what he believes is Kollek’s foolhardy decision to run again after signaling he would retire after 28 years.
ONLY IRREPLACEABLE MAN IN HISTORY?
Olmert, indeed, is free with his praise for Kollek and his accomplishments, but he thinks that Kollek’s age will make it impossible for him to complete another five-year term, He said the 82-year-old Kollek is too tired to serve well.
“Teddy did great things for Jerusalem and I am full of respect for his past performance,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the man can stay forever.”
“Is he the only man in history who is irreplaceable? This is ridiculous,” said Olmert, whose campaign slogan is, “The time has arrived.”
Olmert did not get his “pit bull” reputation by staying out of the muck. He recently made a splash by charging that Kollek tried to buy votes among eastern Jerusalem Arabs by reducing property tax rates.
He cited a conversation taped by Likud Party activists in which Kollek discussed with a deputy the discontent of Arab residents and” techniques” that could reverse it. The reduction of property tax rates reportedly was among the techniques discussed.
“Three weeks before Election Day, they discuss cutting (municipal) charges,” Olmert said. “What do you call it?”
Kollek, for his part, was outraged at what he called Olmert’s “atrocious activities.”
The city provided documentation rebutting the charge and explained that any reduction in rates considered was part of a standard practice for sectors of the city with “special problems.”
Olmert also believes he is “better qualified than Teddy was when he took over in 1965.” With 20 years in the Knesset, “I am the longest-serving young member,” he said. “I’m serving as long as (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin.”
Olmert says his “fighting nature” does not preclude his also being a “conciliator,” a trait that is vital in a city with deep divisions and high passions.
“The most important thing is to be able to communicate to different people: Arabs, the haredim (fervently Orthodox), secular Jews, older people, new immigrants,” he said.
‘AGAINST DEALING WITH THE PLO’
The status of Jerusalem in the context of the accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization has not surfaced much in the municipal campaign, but in less than three years the city’s status may well appear on the negotiating table.
Olmert voted with his party in the Knesset against the accord because he is “against a Palestinian state led by (PLO Chairman Yasser) Arafat.”
“The agreement is not (about) autonomy,” he said, “It’s just a disguise for what is really the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea, Gaza and Samaria and eventually also in Jerusalem, if we will not stop it.”
“I am against political concessions to the Arabs, I’m against the redivision of Jerusalem, I’m against dealing with the PLO,” said Olmert.
At the same time, he promises to invest “10 times more” than Kollek did in the quality of life of Jerusalem’s Arabs, because “I am in favor of protecting their civil rights and human rights.
“They are people who live with us and we will treat them on an equal basis.”
“Five years after I take over, the overwhelming majority of Arabs will be in my favor,” he said.
By contrast, he charges Kollek with trying to “cheat the Arabs” into voting for him by waiting until after the election to issue permits for Jews to build in Arab neighborhoods.
Olmert has come out in support of Jewish construction in Arab neighborhoods and in undeveloped areas of the territories that would have to be annexed to the city. But he said he will not “exercise any provocative policy” if elected.
“If you ask me if I will sponsor major (Jewish) building in the Moslem quarter, the answer is no,” he says. “But if you ask me if I’ll build in the former border area, in areas not densely populated with Arabs, the answer is yes. Why not? On what basis do we argue that Jews have no right to live in Jerusalem?”
Olmert’s primary goals are to “protect Jerusalem as a city where people live in relative tranquility” and to “make sure the quality of life for all people is improved tremendously.”
He cites an education system in collapse, a poor environment, terrible transportation and an economy in urgent need of expansion.
“I’m going to run the city, not just be a leader but a chief executive,” he said. “Teddy Kollek hasn’t been around to run the city on a day-to-day basis for many years. This is what the city needs and what the city is going to get.”