Olmert's Jerusalem

The Ehud Olmert whom I struggled with for three years on the Jerusalem city council, until he resigned as mayor in 2001, was full of contradictions. On the one hand, he was a highly democratic man who provided rooms and secretaries for his opponents (under mayor Teddy Kollek, each party had only one room each, while Olmert gave each councillor his own room in City Hall). On the other hand, he would sometimes have microphones switched off when we said things he did not want to hear. East Jerusalem, for Olmert, was a totally foreign country hidden away on the dark side of the moon. It was a burdensome worry for him, but, nevertheless, he worked to enforce Israel's authority there. He had contradictory views which are, perhaps, typical of all Israelis. He knew that the price of keeping east Jerusalem as part of Israel was too high and would have been willing to sacrifice it; yet he would continually proclaim that clich of politicians, "Jerusalem shall remain united and undivided, under eternal Israeli sovereignty." Olmert wanted to strengthen Israeli control over east Jerusalem, and undertook this policy in a very elegant manner. He invested more money there than Kollek ever had, but not out of any deep conviction of human rights, only for purely pragmatic and political considerations. He knew it was easier and more useful to control the Palestinian population by using investments than by using authoritarian controls or force. He understood that in order to neutralize Palestinian demands to turn Jerusalem into the capital of their state he had to invest in its Palestinian residents. And, in the year 2000, Olmert invested NIS 229 million, a huge amount by any standards; but when placed in the correct perspective we see it amounts to only 8% of the annual municipal budget, which in 2000 was NIS 2.6 billion. In other words, 33% of the city's residents received 8% of the municipal budget. OLMERT WAS more worried by the demographic demon than by anything else. He knew how to read statistics and understood that if nothing unpredictable happened, in another 10-15 years the mayor of Jerusalem would be Palestinian. Sometimes he played with ideas such as a sudden wave of new immigration settling in Jerusalem, which would solve his demographic problem. During a huge wave of Argentinian immigration in 1999 he sent two clerks to Argentina to persuade would-be immigrants to come to Jerusalem; but one of them didn't know a word of Spanish and was therefore unable to make contact with anyone. Because he understood what demographics was going to mean for the city, Olmert said on many occasions that if he could he would change the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. "I don't know how they planned the borders of Jerusalem," he said at a city council meeting in 2001, adding: "I would be happy if the borders looked different." Behind the scenes he worked toward that goal. We have more than one indication that Olmert is connected to the fact that the route of the security fence cuts through the municipal boundaries, leaving 55,000 Palestinians outside the city limits. Did Olmert really know the east of the city? What he knew, he knew only from inside an armored car, surrounded by bodyguards. He rarely had any direct, physical contact with any of the city residents there. AT LEAST two examples come to mind that prove Olmert's real attitude toward the eastern part of Jerusalem. Once I asked him why there were not enough infant welfare centers in east Jerusalem. His reply was a string of the usual clich s - that because of the lack of infrastructure "it is not possible to establish infant welfare centres in all the villages around Jerusalem." The mayor, although of course aware that my question related to neighborhoods within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem, nevertheless used the term "the villages around Jerusalem." This terminology, far from being a Freudian slip of the tongue, reveals his real attitude toward Palestinian residents of the city, who for him were not an integral part of Jerusalem to which he must provide services and for whose welfare he was responsible. They were merely "villagers" in the Jerusalem region. There are other examples. When I first started working on the council I would continually ask Olmert embarrassing questions about the level of services provided by the municipality in east Jerusalem. I persistently enquired which services the municipality was providing in the various Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhoods; the response was always that they lacked for nothing. I knew this was not the case at all. On one occasion I asked Olmert what services the municipality was providing to Ein Fu'ad. As usual, he replied that the municipality provided all the municipal services to that particular village, including welfare, education, garbage removal, street lighting, public health, etc. As ever, I knew the reply to be false, but this time it was a particularly grave falsehood: Ein Fu'ad did not exist; I had made the name up in order to test him. My intention was not to embarrass Olmert but to prove how little he knew about east Jerusalem. One might say he didn't have a clue about that part of the city. To sum up, because Olmert was and is a pragmatic politician, and because East Jerusalem was never really of any real interest to him, I would not be surprised if, one of these days, he was prepared to reach some sort of compromise on east Jerusalem affairs. While mayor of Jerusalem, he said he wished he could change the city boundaries. Now that he seems to be about to become prime minister, I believe he will indeed change those borders. The writer, a field coordinator for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, was a Meretz representative on the Jerusalem City Council from 1998 to 2002.