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Profile : Israel's Pit Bull of Politics Takes on Jerusalem Mayor : Ehud Olmert is a fierce fighter. But when he faces revered Teddy Kollek this fall, he will be the underdog.


JERUSALEM — Ehud Olmert has long been the pit bull of Israel's right-wing Likud Party, always ready to tear into a political foe, feared for his ability to savage those he sees as compromising the country's interests and known for his skill in back-room deals that left Likud's opponents raging but impotent.

"For the things we believe in, above all for the Land of Israel, I will fight, and with all my strength," Olmert said, relishing a reputation earned in his 20 years in politics. "I've not missed a single big political battle in two decades, and I guess I am about to launch into another."

This time, however, Olmert is facing off against the most revered of Israel's practicing politicians, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, in this autumn's municipal elections. And for all his fearsomeness, Olmert is still quite the underdog.

Forget that at 82--and with 28 years in office--even Kollek has acknowledged that he should retire. "Only a fool would run at my age, and only a fool would vote for him if he did," Kollek remarked last year before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin persuaded him to run again in an effort to hold Jerusalem for the Labor Party.

Forget that Jerusalem's accumulating problems--a declining school system, little affordable housing, crime, ethnic tensions, religious friction, traffic congestion, slow economic development--have turned most of the Jewish residents against Kollek's administration of the city, according to several recent opinion surveys.

And forget that Jerusalem's future has emerged as the most difficult issue in Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians on self-government, thus putting a priority on Israeli resolve and unity of purpose and pushing more residents toward Likud's hard-line stance than toward Labor's softer approach.

"Teddy will be very tough to beat," Olmert said over coffee at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, where he is one of the longest-serving members. "People identify Teddy Kollek with Jerusalem. He has acquired almost mythic stature and, in the process, he has probably become the most famous mayor in the world.

"But people have to ask themselves whether Teddy, who was a great mayor for many years, will be great in the year 2000, whether he has the strength and the vision to see Jerusalem through what will be a very tumultuous period, whether he can even cope with today's problems."

What Jerusalem needs, the 48-year-old lawmaker likes to say, is a "young Teddy Kollek," and that is one image he will present to voters over the next four months, trying to transform his Likud aggressiveness into a nonpartisan promotion of the city's interests.

"I don't want to run the city on a party basis," Olmert said. "Teddy was right in this. The task in Jerusalem, more than anywhere else in Israel, is to draw people into the city's development as a common cause, not to divide and alienate them."

Olmert also intends to turn the city's future into a major election issue.

"The most fundamental national consensus is on unified Jerusalem as Israel's eternal capital," Olmert said, "and personally I don't think we should make any concession. But we must work out our position--Jerusalem's own special, unique position--and present it far more vigorously to win its international acceptance."

Olmert also expects to use his experience as a Cabinet member in previous governments to argue that he can manage the city better than Kollek has.

"We have to feed people, improve the quality of life, repair the streets and end the chaos in our schools," Olmert said. "Teddy has long been bored with the day-to-day matters, though they affect people the most. He is interested in the big projects, the fund raising and building on a colossal scale.

"Teddy lacks the patience, the time and the interest to deal with transport, with job creation, with economic development. These are things that you can't put a plaque on and say, 'Gift of Shimon Stein of Brooklyn' or whatever. I do have the ability, patience and experience to get things done."

The final issue that Olmert plans to press may prove the most controversial: closing the wide gap in municipal services between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.

"Teddy talks about a 'united Jerusalem,' but walk the streets and you will see that in (Arab) East Jerusalem it is just not so in real terms," Olmert said. "We need to invest very substantially in the infrastructure and services on the east side to improve the quality of life there."

Olmert argues that if Israel truly intends to retain the Arab areas of Jerusalem--which Palestinians seek as the capital for the state they hope to establish on the West Bank and Gaza Strip--it must go much further in integrating those neighborhoods into the city as a whole.

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