The Capital Nobody Wants to Lead

Jerusalem is a city where nobody any longer believes in the lofty slogans and heroic illusions pegged to its name. In many ways, the city has slid back to being a divided, petrified town as it was until 1967.

The limping race for mayor of Jerusalem scarcely interests professionals and party activists, who didn't even bother to take part in the primaries, never mind the residents of the city. The polls suggest many won't even vote on election day.

The local arena is abuzz with the feverish activity of near anonymous activists and local characters, but one after the other, national-level politicians and personalities have indicated their total lack of interest in being mayor of Israel's capital. The reactions of some suggest they were even insulted at a mere hint of putting forward their names. They certainly don't share the view of Sir Ronald Storrs, who refused any job other than governor of Jerusalem: "In a sense I cannot explain, there is no promotion after Jerusalem."

It is only a decade since that mayoral chair was occupied by one of whom it was said: "He is the best known Israeli all over the world ... ask someone who is mayor of London or Paris or Rome and nobody can say, but ask them who is mayor of Jerusalem and they will know." What happened after Teddy Kollek was deposed and Ehud Olmert crowned? Has the devaluation of the job, to the point of being almost wiped out, been the result of neglect, inappropriate candidates, lack of charisma, ignorance, or lack of historical perspective, all eroding the once lofty role and emptying it of meaning? Or perhaps the devaluation is part of an historic process that destroyed the myth of Jerusalem and as a side issue destroyed the status of the mayor's office.

There's no doubt the mayor's personality and function were an important contribution to the prestige of the job - and to its ruin. Teddy Kollek created the myth of being the perfect mayor for the most complex city in the world. His personality, broad cultural horizons, optimism - and indeed his belief that there is no promotion after Jerusalem - made people latch on to the myth, or illusion, that while he was mayor, all was not lost. Doron Rosenblum once compared him to Tolstoy's hero General Kutuzov, "who more than he led events, ingeniously knew how to be swept along by history as he napped in the saddle."

The citizens of the city and millions around the world were not interested in the gloomy reality that lurked in the city. They needed consolation because of the zealotry, violence, and animosity that enveloped their daily lives, and that comfort was provided by a mayor who unceasingly preached that better days were coming, beyond the destructive hatred.

Ironically, Teddy Kollek's illusion of good will and optimism faded during the peak of the Oslo euphoria in the fall of 1993. Other leaders tried to infect the public with optimistic forecasts of a new era, but fatigue, distrust, an aggregation of fear, hatred and self-righteousness, deposed the old lion and crowned in his place a man who knew how to swim through the murky reality, but not to rise above it.

Ehud Olmert was not a terrible mayor - in some ways he was better than Kollek. But he totally failed the main test of being mayor of Jerusalem; he did not provide that faith that all is not lost. On the contrary, he was seen as part of the problem rather than the solution, someone who only thought about his "promotion after Jerusalem."

There have been reports that when he moved on, he even took with him the chair he had used in the mayor's officer. Olmert wasted the treasure of grace left by Kollek and left his heir unbearable financial and political debts. No wonder only ignorant people with downcast eyes would dare aspire to the job.

But maybe we are exaggerating the influence of the mayor's personality. Maybe the mayor is no more than a victim of events over which he has only marginal influence. In the spring of 2003, it is a city at a dead end - a frontier town with Jewish residents surrounded by a hostile community, checkpoints tearing through its urban fabric and barbed wire cutting it off from its surroundings. It is a neglected dirty city with empty coffers and a downtrodden sulky population.

It is a city where nobody any longer believes in the lofty slogans and heroic illusions pegged to its name. In many ways, the city has slid back to being a divided, petrified town as it was until 1967. True, the population has tripled and the municipal jurisdiction has quintupled, and the walls that divided its heart have been taken down. But they were replaced by even higher walls made of a hatred much less passable than barbed wire. The Jerusalem of pre-1967 produced gray leaders, and the post-illusory Jerusalem has produced the same.

And maybe there is an important lesson here. Jerusalem always had a cyclical history, as in the words of the poet Dan Pagis:

"In it are all the wonder-makers / necromancers praying for a sign / to come down from the skies / and change its face, burying the soul in a handful of dirt, sanctifying it / forever at their feet, as a cemetery."

Maybe it's best that the mayor of the city be someone without flashing rhetoric and charisma, who will take his satisfaction in simply sweeping up its garbage.