Magazine article Insight on the News

Challenges for Jerusalem's New Mayor

Magazine article Insight on the News

Challenges for Jerusalem's New Mayor

Article excerpt

Ehud Olmert's resounding defeat of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in November catapulted him to national, indeed international, prominence. It also marked a potential watershed in Israeli politics.

The Israeli political system, unlike that of the United States, does not provide too many opportunities for politicians to build meaningful power bases outside the central government. There are no state governments, and therefore no gubernatorial offices from which incumbents might launch national campaigns.

To the extent that there has been a platform from which Israeli politicians can propel themselves onto the national scene, it has been the country's armed forces. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and former Agriculture Minister Raphael Eytan are but three of the many retired generals who play leading roles in Israeli politics. They were preceded by the likes of Moshe Dayan, the war hero who became foreign minister, and Yigal Allon, leader of the Palmach shock troops, who wrote the 1967 plan for resolving Palestinian claims to the West Bank while also preserving Israel's security.

Olmert's victory in Jerusalem's municipal elections reveals that there is another power base for politicians with national aspirations: Israel's big cities.

Olmert, who was minister of health under Yitzhak Shamir, displaced the long-serving octogenarian Kollek notwithstanding the Laborite's strong support from Rabin, who had urged the mayor to run for re-election despite his advanced age. As the new mayor of Israel's capital, Olmert now has a national platform at least as important as that of Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud bloc, to which Olmert belongs.

Indeed, in the short-to-medium term, it is Netanyahu, rather than Rabin, who might feel most threatened by Olmert's rise to new prominence. While Netanyahu remains enmeshed in arcane Likud battles among his own supporters and those of Sharon and former Foreign Minister David Levy, Olmert has a chance to demonstrate his own talents through the crucible of governance.

Many in the American media are portraying Olmert as an unreconstructed reactionary. In fact, Olmert represents a Likud far different from that which Israelis, and the outside world, are familiar with. Although he was a Shamir confidant and voted against the recent Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement, Olmert has never been a vociferous hawk. …

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