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Teddy Kollek, 95; Jerusalem mayor was a founding father of Israel

January 03, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Teddy Kollek, the courtly, cigar-chomping mayor who in his 28-year tenure oversaw the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War and championed coexistence of its Jewish and Arab populations, died Tuesday. He was 95, one of Israel's oldest remaining founding fathers.

He died of natural causes at the Jerusalem retirement home where he had lived for several years, said Nomi Yeshua, his assistant at the Jerusalem Foundation. Kollek had started the charity and worked there until his health failed about six months ago, triggering "a gradual physical shutdown of his system," she said.

Israel Radio said Kollek would be given a state funeral Thursday.

Kollek became mayor of Jewish West Jerusalem in 1965, when the city was divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule by barbed wire and machine-gun posts. After Israel captured East Jerusalem from the Arabs two years later, he presided over the city's most ambitious building and restoration projects in four centuries.

He practiced pragmatic rule in a city that, through history, has been torn by ethnic and religious rivalries. Guided by a vision of a united city with disparate groups living in separate but equal communities, he lobbied to bring voting rights, access to schools, religious freedom and social welfare benefits to its poorer Arab minority.

But as a Zionist, he insisted that the city remain under Israeli sovereignty, rejecting Palestinians' demand to make the city's Arab section the capital of their would-be state. And he allowed construction of nine Jewish suburbs, moving 160,000 Jews into East Jerusalem to reinforce the city's Jewish majority.

"Jerusalem's people of differing faiths, cultures and aspirations must find peaceful ways to live together other than by drawing a line in the sand," he once wrote.

It was a position that made it impossible for him to fully win the trust of the Palestinians.

Never aspiring to higher office, Kollek was reelected five times, leading the city longer than any other mayor, until his conciliatory vision was undermined by rising Palestinian hostility and the rightward drift of Israeli politics. He lost in 1993 to Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister.

"When he was elected, Jerusalem was a divided city with a status unworthy of itself," Olmert said in a statement eulogizing his former rival, whom he had once called "probably the most famous mayor in the world." "When he left office," the prime minister added, "Jerusalem was a great, modern and united city.... His name will always be an inseparable part of Jerusalem's glory."

Uri Lupolianski, the current mayor, said: "Teddy was Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was Teddy."

Arab assessments were less generous. "He was a respectable Israeli figure," said Khatem Abdel-Qader, a prominent Palestinian resident of Jerusalem and a leader in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. "But while it is true Kollek sought coexistence, he did not believe for a single moment that Palestinians in the city have political rights, only social rights."

For Jews and Arabs, Kollek was a voluble, ubiquitous figure, portly in a suit and open-necked shirt as he toured the city in daily 6 a.m. inspections, making long lists of things to fix. He listed his home telephone number, saying the mayor should be available to all.

He was a European-born Jew whose Jewish constituency was mostly from North Africa and Arab countries, a liberal in an increasingly right-wing stronghold, and a secularist in the center of Jewish orthodoxy.

Walking a tightrope, he worked to prevent the city's growing ultra-Orthodox community from imposing its lifestyle on secular Jews and promoted special housing projects for the ultra-Orthodox to locate them far from traffic that would spoil their Sabbath rest.

"Mayor of Jerusalem is not the most important job," Kollek once said, "but it is harder than being prime minister."

Kollek's role as a conciliator seemed out of sync with his public personality. He could be sharp-tongued, and repeatedly scolded the Palestinians for refusing half steps toward improving their lot. "You never work hard at details," he once told a veteran Palestinian leader.

He was a magnet for generous donations to the city. The Jerusalem Foundation, which he started in 1966 to finance development and education projects in the city, collected more than $1 billion over the years of his stewardship.

His fundraising skills had been honed in the 1950s, when 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.

"There was nobody who could stand up to his charm ... Hollywood actors, ministers, presidents of various countries," said former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon.

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