Jerusalem's Teddy Kollek finds call to run irresistible

June 27, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Can Teddy Kollek save Jerusalem?

Sound the trumpets, bring up the orchestra for this cliffhanger scene. There he is, the old and beloved town mayor. Having done his duty, he is about to fade away graciously. He has one foot over the abyss of retirement, his 6-foot-1 bulk (or what's left of it; he has shriveled a bit in his ninth decade) perched for the plunge, when . . . wait! Is that a distant plea for help from his dear townsfolk?

Theodore Kollek, the scriptwriter of this scene, relishes the suspense. Will he succeed? Will the city be saved?

The mayor says he is running for another term in the November municipal election because "I'm the only one who can prevent a Likud victory" giving over Jerusalem to the right-wing party. He must run for a seventh term "to keep Jerusalem comparatively quiet and peaceful." If he loses, he predicts, violence "will increase tremendously."

Rubbish, say his critics.

"He is more addicted to being mayor than a drug addict is to drugs," says City Councilman Nissim Zeev. "It is very difficult for him to let go of being mayor."

Is this what it has come down to: an old man clinging pathetically to his job?

He's the mayor who put an Israeli face on Jerusalem for the world. He dodged bullets to reassure his citizens in the Six Day War and often has stood between angry mobs to keep the peace. He can "schnorr" for gifts for his city like no one else, whisking into New York for an evening and retreating with a barrelful of cash. He is the brash, bold, bright mayor who made the mold for such imitators as Edward I. Koch of New York and William Donald Schaefer of Baltimore.

An old man clinging to a job?

"I still run after girls," Teddy Kollek asserts. "I feel young. I'm a better man than my opponent."

OK, he did say recently he would never vote for an 82-year-old mayor. Last month, he turned 82. "Sure, it was foolish of me to say so," he concedes. "Look, in 27 years I'm not allowed to say something foolish?"

Recent embarrassments

But there have been some embarrassments recently.

* For the better part of a year, he put on a spectacle of flip-flops over his mayoral plans. He hinted he would resign early. Then he said no but insisted he was too old and tired to run again. Then, this month, he reversed himself again and announced his candidacy for another five-year term.

* Mr. Kollek always boasted of his political independence, but his latest quick-change came after heavy-handed appeals by Labor Party chieftains who feared his departure would leave the office to the Likud. Critics said Mr. Kollek sullied himself with such rank politics.

* After years of promising succession to his dog-loyal and able deputy mayor, Amos Mar-Haim, Mr. Kollek betrayed him. The mayor turned up at his re-election announcement with a fresh-faced running mate, Nachman Shai, who had no municipal experience but who the party regulars thought would be more appealing on TV. It seemed clear that Mr. Kollek might resign shortly after winning, to let Mr. Shai take his place.

* Then, last week, Mr. Shai complained that the deal to succeed Mr. Kollek as mayor was not certain enough and pulled out of the race. That left red-faced Mr. Kollek with no candidate for deputy and his campaign with the smell of ineptitude.

"Teddy's out of it," said a critic who would not be identified. "He's sick and tired and old and impatient. He's not controlling anything."

His early stumbles are "a great drawback," says Mr. Kollek. His campaign must overcome several difficulties. "One of the difficulties is my age. Everybody will run on my age. The other difficulty is that I have to regain confidence."

It is not the first challenge he has faced. He was elected mayor as an upstart underdog in 1965, when Jewish Jerusalem was half a city, cut by a wall bristling with Jordanian soldiers and linked only by a narrow corridor with the rest of Israel. "I knew nothing about being a mayor, and the prospect frightened me," he has said.

Ironically, he campaigned on a slogan of replacing the elder incumbent, Mordechai Ish Shalom, with "some fresh air." Mr. Kollek was a handsome, strapping Austrian immigrant cut from the heroic Zionist image, equally adept at shouldering 200-pound bags of gravel at his kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee or dealing with Nazi Adolf Eichmann before World War II to arrange for the emigration of 3,000 Jews.

Eighteen months after he took office, the Six Day War flashed past, and Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan. Against the young mayor's advice, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan dynamited the walls separating the city three weeks later. Since then, Mr. Kollek's most sensitive task has been to keep peace between the Arabs and Jews of this community.

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