JERUSALEM — The old saying that you can't fight City Hall has been turned on its head in this divided and tense capital of religious and political extremes. Teddy Kollek, perhaps the world's best known mayor, is finding that his own City Hall can't fight.
Kollek, one of the last grand figures of Zionism, clings to a vision of a united city of disparate groups living in separate but equal communities in mutual respect. But while he looks on, the vision is being shoved aside by a competing central government policy: ensuring the supremacy of one group over another.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 18, 1992 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli History--A background box accompanying a profile of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in Jan. 9 editions left the impression that Israel did not exist until the end of the 1948 war. In fact, Israel declared independence before being invaded by Arab armies in May of that year and, by the end of the war the following year, had gained broad international recognition.
The mayor can do little about it. At the age of 80, as he nears the end of six terms and more than a quarter-century in office, Kollek the voice of reason is becoming Jeremiah the voice of doom.
"It's a dangerous situation," he said in a recent interview. "This is a city where everyone has the same rights. If some Israelis try to behave as if the Arabs are inferior, then it's immoral."
On Christmas Day, Kollek took the unusual step of leading a march into the Jerusalem suburb of Silwan to protest the takeover of Arab housing by government-backed Jewish nationalists.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, through the aggressive hand of Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, has embarked on a campaign to alter the makeup of city neighborhoods. The integration is strictly one-way: Jewish groups will be implanted in Arab communities to show that "Jews can live anywhere" even if Arabs cannot.
More than just a squabble over block-busting, the relentless campaign in effect undermines the goals of Kollek's whole career. Equal rights under Jewish rule, even in an atmosphere of hostility, was his guiding philosophy. With only two years left in what probably is his last term in office, the post-Kollek era is already under way.
Broadly, Jerusalem has become the latest battleground in the war over Israel's yet-unformed identity and a left-right struggle over the nature of the country. Forty-three years into statehood, is Israel a settled, liberal nation of equal rights for all? Or does it still see itself as a struggling and besieged community of Jews compelled to battle Arabs for every inch of earth under its feet?
Or, as rightists in government see it, does the very presence of Arabs somehow debase the Israeli claim to the city, to the land, to existence?
"Silwan is a test case," advised Yaron Ezrahi, who marched along with Kollek. "For the extreme right, this is just an extension of the independence war. For leftists, that war is over and it is time for conciliation."
Conciliation has been the theme of Kollek's career, and he has doggedly practiced pragmatic rule in a city that, through history, has been torn by ethnic and religious rivalries. With his eye on nuts-and-bolts improvement, he was often criticized for overlooking the deeper desires of the city's 150,000 Palestinian residents--who, in the words of one Israeli observer, want national rights, not just better sewers. About 350,000 Israelis live in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, if the political conflict is ever resolved, even Palestinians might prefer to keep "Teddy," as he is universally known. During a face-to-face meeting last year, Faisal Husseini, the moderate Palestinian leader, told Kollek that if Palestinians get to set up their capital in Jerusalem alongside Israel's, the Arabs might favor Kollek for mayor.
Kollek's role as a conciliator seems out of sync with the public personality of the man himself. The native Viennese can be sharp-tongued--he called the Silwan settlers "dastardly"--and often hectoring. He has repeatedly scolded the Palestinians for refusing half steps to improving their lot. "You never work hard at details," he once told a veteran Palestinian leader.
He frequently dozes off at public meetings, yet despite his advanced age, rightists shied away from seriously challenging him in the 1989 city elections. He is still a magnet for generous donations to the city. A fund has collected $250 million over the years of his stewardship. In May, well-wishers showered him with compliments and American donors with $2 million for Jerusalem. "The ode of praise to Teddy Kollek never ends," wrote columnist Hirsh Goodman in the Jerusalem Report magazine.
His fund-raising skills were honed earlier in his career, when in the 1950s, he helped organize the first Israel Bonds drive in the United States and was a key negotiator in efforts to get the first American aid for the new nation.
Kollek was a protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, having worked, in Britain during World War II, with the future leader in the Jewish Agency. This group was responsible for arranging immigration to what was then known as Palestine. He also worked with Allied intelligence services during the war, helping them to contact Jewish underground groups and to aid Jews escaping from Nazi persecution.