Teddy Kollek, longtime mayor of Jerusalem, dies


JERUSALEM (AP) – Teddy Kollek, the legendary Jerusalem mayor who presided over the reunification of the city after the 1967 Mideast war and tried to balance the needs of its split Jewish and Arab populations, died Tuesday at the age of 95.

Kollek died of natural causes, according to the Jerusalem Foundation, a charity he founded 40 years ago.

Kollek needed all his celebrated energy, will and mastery of public relations in the nearly three decades that he was mayor, walking a tightrope between Israeli and Palestinian national aspirations and between rival religious and ethnic groups within the two communities.

The courtly, portly central European charmer oversaw a city famed for disputes, where even repairing a road can provoke angry arguments between Israelis and Arabs, secular and religious Jews, or differing schools of archaeologists.

He was expected to be buried in a state funeral in Jerusalem on Thursday, Israel Radio reported. Flags over city hall were lowered to half-staff following news of his death.

“The name of Kollek will remain forever a part of the Jerusalem scene,” said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in 1993 defeated Kollek in his seventh bid for mayor. “The government and people of Israel bow their heads in deep sorrow at the passing of one of the giants among the founding fathers of the state.”

Kollek liked to be called Teddy by all, and during his long years in office, he walked the streets without a bodyguard. Although deemed Jerusalem’s greatest builder since King Herod, his home number was in the phone book for complaints about potholes or pleas for a new playground.

When Kollek took office in 1965, Jerusalem was still divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule, with its center a no man’s land of barbed wire and machine-gun posts.

In the 1967 war, Israel seized all and annexed the Arab eastern part. Kollek became known as a builder, pushing to create museums, gardens, and promenades.

He preached fairness to the city’s Arabs but said Jerusalem should remain under Israel’s sovereignty – despite the Palestinians’ demand that the Arab part of the city become the capital of their would-be state.

“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,” Kollek once wrote.

He fought attempts by zealous Jews to move into the Muslim quarter of the walled Old City, but defended the practice of developing Jewish suburbs around the eastern Arab sector to prevent it from escaping Israel’s rule.

Kollek aides later admitted that during his decades in office, the city’s master plan was aimed at preserving the population balance at 28 percent Arabs and 72 percent Jews. To solidify Israel’s hold over the eastern sector of the city, Kollek presided over the construction of nine Jewish neighborhoods, moving 160,000 Jews into the area.

Still, in 2002, when Israeli-Palestinian violence peaked and Israeli police arrested Palestinians in east Jerusalem accused of being involved in Hamas suicide attacks, Kollek called for Israel to hand over parts of the city to Palestinian rule.

“I think there needs to be an arrangement and we need to give something to them and have part for ourselves,” Kollek said. “It will never be easy.”

He also tried to accommodate the needs of the competing religious and secular Jewish populations. As mayor, he pushed through a sports stadium that pleased the secular and angered the religious. In return, he pledged that a nearby shopping center would always be closed on the Jewish sabbath.

Affection for Kollek crossed party boundaries.

“He wanted to be the patron of all Jerusalem, of all its communities,” former parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin, who led the opposition in city council during Kollek’s reign, told Army Radio.

He even earned grudging respect from the city’s Palestinians.

Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, a Palestinian academic and longtime Jerusalem resident, said Kollek’s relations with Jerusalem’s Palestinians were complex.

He helped build Jewish communities in east Jerusalem and razed an Arab neighborhood in the Old City to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site. But he also reached out to some Palestinians and tried to build bridges with them, he said.

“Previous mayors were nobody in Jerusalem. They sat around in their offices not knowing what Jerusalem meant,” Abdul-Hadi said. “Teddy Kollek knew what Jerusalem meant to the world. … Very few people will grasp that opportunity and grasp that moment, that event and take advantage of it.”

Uzi Baram, a former colleague of Kollek in the centrist Labor party, said the one goal that Kollek failed to achieve was to close the social and economic gaps between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. About one-third of the city’s 700,000 residents are Palestinians, whose schools and neighborhoods receive far less funding than those of their Jewish neighbors.

“The Arab population of east Jerusalem continued to lag behind, and I think Teddy Kollek saw that as a scar,” Baram said.

The bloody conflict with the Palestinians has left many Jewish residents of Jerusalem fearful of shopping or doing business in the city’s Arab neighborhoods, and disputes between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews that plagued the Kollek era continue.

In November, religious opponents of a planned gay pride march through the city repeatedly rioted, trashing downtown streets and battling police.

In the troubled spaces between Jew and Arab, religious and secular, the voluble Kollek was an anomaly almost everywhere he went.

He was a European-born Jew whose Jewish constituency was 70 percent from North Africa or Arab countries. He was a liberal in a bastion of hawks and a secularist in the center of Jewish orthodoxy.

Born May 27, 1911, in Hungary and raised in Vienna, Kollek came to British-mandate Palestine in 1935 and helped buy weapons illicitly for the 1948 war with neighboring Arabs that accompanied the birth of Israel.

After the state was founded, he developed his political skills from 1952 to 1964 as chief aide to its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.

Ben Gurion persuaded Kollek to run for mayor in 1965. Though Kollek was a member of the center-left Labor party, he held power through the years as head of a bloc known as One Jerusalem.

He was famous for wheedling fat checks from European and American Jews. Always conscious of Jerusalem’s 5,000-year history, he was the founder and chairman of the Israel Museum.

In 1988, Kollek was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his special contribution to the country. In his later years, he focused on raising money for his Jerusalem Foundation, which financed development and education projects in the city.

“There was nobody who could stand up to his charm … Hollywood actors, ministers, presidents of various countries,” former President Yitzhak Navon said in a radio interview.

Kollek is survived by his wife Tamar; a son, Amos; and a daughter, Osnat.