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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Teddy Kollek : Jerusalem's Lion in Winter Reflects Back Over His Life

February 17, 1991|William Tuohy | William Tuohy is European Security Correspondent for The Times. He interviewed Teddy Kollek in the mayor's office

JERUSALEM — Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's distinguished mayor, turns 80 this year, but you'd hardly know it watching him in action. At his desk at 7:30 a.m., Teddy--as he is known to one and all--puts in bone-wearying 12- to 14-hour days trying to solve the seemingly unsolvable problems of his unique and bruised city, whose holy places are sacred to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Friend to the famous, confidante to the locals, Teddy strives mightily in his Sisyphean task of reconciling the irreconcilable: Israeli Jews in West Jerusalem and Arab Palestinians in East Jerusalem, whose fate has been linked since Jerusalem was physically--but not emotionally--re-united by the 1967 War.

Growing up in Vienna, Kollek immigrated to Palestine in 1935, helped found Kibbutz Ein Gev in Galilee, worked with Allied intelligence in World War II and headed the undercover operation to buy arms during the 1948-49 Israeli War for Independence.

With the urging of his mentor, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, he was elected Jerusalem's mayor in 1965, representing the moderate left. Despite Israel's mounting shift to the political right, he was elected to his sixth consecutive term in 1989. Kollek, now a grandfather, remains married to his wife of 54 years, Tamar.

Usually dressed casually in an open-neck shirt, Teddy sat behind his desk wearing an elegant three-piece dark suit, immaculate white shirt and black tie--explaining he had attended two funerals earlier in his crowded day. After showing a visitor a group of teddy bears sent by admirers and his own collection of maps and prints of Jerusalem at various stages in its history, he poured glasses from a bottle of arak, the anise-flavored local liqueur. Then Kollek toted up the balance sheet of a lifetime of accomplishment and disappointment, impromptu thoughts of this lion in winter.

Question: You've been mayor of Jerusalem for more than 25 years. You've seen it divided, united--some might say divided again. You've seen good times and bad. What is the state of Jerusalem today and the outlook for the future?

Answer: Well, as it looks today, there is certainly a psychological division but no physical division. When we had a physical division and shooting across the border, it was worse than now. In between, we had a very good time with lots of activities. But even today I think that more has been left of the cooperative things than you would think.

We had a meeting (recently) of our senior Arab officials, about 150 of them. We have 1,500 Arab employees in the city, out of 5,000 personnel. They didn't stay away from their jobs during a single strike. But they are worried--especially if they should have to leave the municipality. They have to feed families, they like their colleagues and they like the job.

I think you cannot solve the problems of Jerusalem without solving the problems in the country as a whole--and we are divided amongst ourselves on how to settle them . . . .

We're going through a difficult time but I'm pretty confident. If you had prophesied--30 years ago, 50 years ago--you would have prophesied something worse than this. We are not very happy with the state of Israel. We had higher hopes. And not all these hopes came true, and we have disappointments. But if, let's say in 1940 on the brink of the Holocaust, we would have been offered the state as it is today--with all the unpleasantness--we would have grabbed it with open arms and would have been very happy.

Q: How has the war affected your city?

A: Fortunately, Jerusalem has not yet been hit in any of the missile attacks and I certainly hope we do not have to go through what the people of Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, or Haifa have experienced. On the positive side, our hotels and other businesses have had a mini-boom--as many Tel Avivians sought a temporary refuge from the screaming of the Scuds and the Patriots.

Q: The Palestinians have supported Saddam Hussein--how has this affected you and your city?

A: I believe we must try and understand the source of their identification with Saddam Hussein--as hurtful for us and as potentially tragic for them as it may be. I hope this war will end soon with a clear victory for America and her allies. We and the Palestinians will remain here. Neither of us will go away. Therefore, it is urgent that we Israelis be magnanimous and reach the sort of political solution which will resolve the tension.

Q: The intifada, the Palestinian uprising, is going into its fourth year. To what degree has that disrupted your hopes for a united and peaceful Jerusalem?

A: It has interrupted that, but it didn't come entirely unexpected. When it came, it was a stronger reaction than I had expected. But I knew that the Palestinians couldn't take this lying down. In fact, the other day I had a meeting with one of the outstanding public figures amongst the Palestinians--Faisel Husseini.

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