After 28 Years, Kollek Prepares to Leave the Helm of Jerusalem

Teddy Kollek is busy tying up loose ends as he prepares to leave his office in Jerusalem’s old City Hall where he has served as mayor for 28 years.

For one, he has had to deal with a flood of letters and phone calls in the wake of his defeat after his hard-fought and bitter battle for reelection.

There have been expressions of commiseration as well as sympathy, including a phone call from New York Mayor David Dinkins, and a letter from former President Bush, both of whom were defeated in their re-election bids.

Likud Knesset member Ehud Olmert will be taking the municipal reins, but he won’t be taking Kollek’s place. Instead, Olmert has chosen to move into the new City Hall nearby.

In his office, filled with the clutter of work and memorabilia, Kollek looked worn but relaxed, thoughtful and good-humored as he answered questions from a few reporters gathered around his large desk.

Clearly, it will be hard for Kollek to let go, despite his 82 years and his giant contribution to his beloved city, visible in its countless parks, gardens, theaters and cultural centers.

When prodded, he conceded that not letting go sooner probably played a role in his loss, which stunned him, even though it could never have been totally ruled out.

Kollek had announced his retirement but changed his mind after the Labor Party and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in particular, pressured him to run again.

Many voters, including Kollek loyalists, believed he should have stuck by his original decision.

‘IT WAS A SHOCK TO ME’

Olmert garnered a wide margin of victory largely due to an eleventh-hour deal he made with the fervently Orthodox, in which he promised several portfolios in return for the community’s votes.

But Kollek also suffered from the low turn-out by secular voters who had supported him in the past. Overall turnout was roughly 40 percent, and secular turnout considerably lower.

Rabin, meanwhile, has taken responsibility for the defeat.

Kollek admitted he might have groomed someone younger to take the lead in his stead, and he called the campaign the biggest regret of his 28 years in office. Still, he absolved the Labor Party of blame.

“I wasn’t absolutely confident,” he said about his chances of winning. “But I had a feeling that if I wouldn’t try, I would have a very bad conscience. This is the reason I tried and not because the Labor Party pressed me.”

“What convinced me,” he said, was a bad feeling about Olmert, and an “even worse” feeling about Olmert’s deal with fervently Orthodox parties.

Kollek’s feelings evidently were strong enough to delay the requisite call to the winner on election night by a few days.

“Why should I (call him) immediately?” he asked. “It was a shock to me.”

“Mr. Olmert is 30 years younger than I am,” he added. “He could have phoned me as easily, right? Why didn’t he?” But he later offered his help to Olmert, “wherever he can use it.”

“Jerusalem is bigger and more important than any individual,” he said matter-of-factly, “so whatever I can do I’ll certainly do.”

Kollek was approached by the fervently Orthodox, he said, but refused them the key portfolios — education and planning — they wanted and won from Olmert.

“Those are the things that change the character of the city,” he said.

Indeed, Kollek fears that polarization in the city will increase under the combined stewardship of the fervently Orthodox and Olmert, a Likudnik known for his combative political style.

Kollek’s proudest achievement, he said, is making Jerusalem a “comparatively quiet city,” despite the fact that “it’s the most heterogeneous city you can imagine.”

He points to the decline in tension between the secular and fervently religious, which at one time was manifested in stone-throwing and setting fire to bus stops with “immodest” advertising.

“They have learned to live together,” he noted, though “not with great love.”

He has worked to keep the city balanced, he said. He has expanded industry and fought for affordable housing to stem the steady exodus of young secular residents to the outskirts, where they have been lured by the incentives offered by the national government.

And Arab-Jewish tensions, even at the height of the intifada, never reached levels of those in the West Bank, he added.

He pointed to the access enjoyed by all faiths in the city to holy places and freedom of worship, calling this a major achievement. “I hope it lasts,” he said.

‘QUESTION IS HOW FAR OLMERT IS COMMITTED’

“The biggest danger is that tension will return to the city,” he said, looking ahead to Olmert’s tenure as mayor. “A few yeshivot in East Jerusalem will blow the whole thing up again.”

Olmert has pledged that religion will not assume a higher profile under his leadership and that policies that may provoke Arab residents will not be adopted.

Kollek said, “The question is how far Mr. Olmert is committed” to the religious parties.

“If a year will pass without anything (else being) closed on Friday evening, and a year will pass without any new Jewish institutions being built in densely Arab areas, then it’ll make me very happy,” Kollek said, “But I can’t know before that.”

Meanwhile, Kollek said he has “all kind of plans.”

He will throw the bulk of his effort into the celebration, still a few years off, marking the 3,000th anniversary of King David’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom. It will be a tool for tourism, for public relations and an attraction for business investment, he explained, in a proprietary tone.

He will also continue his long-time work with the Jerusalem Foundation and develop plans for an annual celebration of the works of Leonard Bernstein.

Asked if Olmert need fear he will dog him, Kollek quickly said no, and summed up his judgment of the transition. “I think there will be enough people to do that,” he said, “and I’m afraid there will be enough occasions.”

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