The Time Jerusalem's Mayor Tried to Convince Arafat to Get Palestinians to Vote

Fearing his rival Ehud Olmert would win the election with the ultra-Orthodox vote, ex-mayor Teddy Kollek sent an aide to Tunis who tried to break East Jerusalem's boycott on voting

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PLO leader Yasser Arafat waves to well wishers as he returns from Cairo to his office in Gaza City, June 12, 1995.
PLO leader Yasser Arafat waves to well wishers as he returns from Cairo to his office in Gaza City, June 12, 1995.Credit: AP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In 1993, Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek was 82 years old and already in office for 28 years. He wanted to retire honorably and not run for another term, but the Labor Party pressured him to contend against the Likud candidate, Ehud Olmert. Kollek, who knew Olmert would get the ultra-Orthodox voters’ support, asked his confidant Moshe Amirav to meet Yasser Arafat and get him to persuade the Palestinians of East Jerusalem to vote.

“I told him he didn’t have a chance,” says Professor Amirav, then a municipal councilman in charge of the East Jerusalem portfolio. “Teddy said, ‘You’re right, but you can help, you can go to Arafat and persuade him to tell the Arabs to vote.’”

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Amirav’s subsequent trip to Tunis to meet Arafat and the latter’s agreement to put out the word for Kollek in East Jerusalem, published here for the first time, almost succeeded in enlisting the Palestinian leadership in a dramatic electoral move that would have changed Jerusalem’s political map. It failed, like many other attempts to break the Palestinian boycott on voting over the 51 years since Israel’s takeover of East Jerusalem in June 1967. However, many believe that in the elections coming up in October, the Palestinians will finally come out to vote.

Ehud Olmert and Teddy Kollek in 1994.Credit: Tzvika Israeli / GPO

Palestinians in the capital who have permanent residency status have the right to vote for local government (but not for the Knesset). But since 1967 they have hardly used that right for fear their vote would be seen as acceptance of Israel’s rule of East Jerusalem.

Amirav, a former right-winger and senior Likud activist in the capital, had crossed the line several years earlier and joined the Shinui Party, after his talks with Palestinian leader Faisal al-Husseini became known and the Likud’s tribunal threatened to kick him out of the party.

Amirav used his close ties with Husseini, then the Palestinians’ undisputed leader in Jerusalem, to arrange a meeting with Arafat in Tunis. This was before the Oslo process was made known and meetings with PLO figures were still illegal. “Teddy went to someone in the government, probably Rabin, and got my trip approved,” says Amirav. “I went to Tunis with an Israeli passport, and was met there by PLO people who took me to Arafat.”

That night the PLO executive committee had a meeting. “After the meeting we sat together and [Arafat] said it wasn’t easy but we’ve made a decision – the executive committee decided to enable our brothers in Jerusalem to vote, preferably for a Palestinian party,” Amirav recalls.

He says Arafat wasn’t impressed by the argument that Olmert could be elected. “He said Kollek and Olmert were all the same to him, but that if they [Jerusalem Palestinians] had a party, they could have influence. I shook his hand excitedly and returned to Teddy. He leaped with joy. We kept it a secret, so that Olmert wouldn’t use it against Kollek,” he says.

But the joy was premature. Now the Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem had to be persuaded to form a party and call on the Palestinians to vote. Husseini called Amirav after hearing from Arafat, and invited him to present his arguments at a meeting of a council he headed at Orient House, then the headquarters for Palestinian activity in the city.

“After my speech I left the room,” says Amirav. “I told Husseini it was a historic move. He said I didn’t have to convince him. But two hours later he came out and told me, ‘I’m sorry, you persuaded me but everyone sees it as a betrayal.’”

Amirav recalls that only three of some 15 council members voted in favor of taking part in the municipal elections. They were Husseini himself, Hanna Siniora and Sari Nusseibeh. The last two were seen as the moderates of the Palestinian leadership.

Amirav told Kollek to retire, but the mayor didn’t heed his advice and lost to Olmert.

“Arafat didn’t say no, but he said it was the Jerusalem leadership’s decision,” Nusseibeh says, referring to the meeting at the Orient House.

Nusseibeh and Amirav believe Arafat’s decision may have been based on the advanced negotiations with Israel and the Oslo understandings about to be signed. Perhaps Arafat assumed that in the next few years there would be negotiations on dividing Jerusalem and it was better for the Palestinians to come to the talks from a position of strength, even at the price of temporary normalization and recognition of Israel’s rule.

Years later, as adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Amirav met Arafat again during the 2000 Camp David negotiations. “He told me it was a historic mistake, that if my suggestion had been accepted, everything could have been different,” Amirav says.

“It’s hard to know what would have happened, but it could have placed us in a better position to demand the two-state solution,” says Nusseibeh.

The first who tried to persuade the Palestinians to vote was the only one who succeeded, at least partially. Meron Benvenisti, Kollek’s deputy and close aide for many years, took the East Jerusalem portfolio immediately after the Six-Day War. In the first elections after the war, in 1969, “[Palestinians in East Jerusalem] were still in shock and didn’t understand what their status was, so I spread a rumor that whoever doesn’t come to vote would jeopardize his residency status.” Benvenisti says. He also organized buses and taxis to take voters to the polls. At the end of the day it transpired that 7,500 Arabs – 21 percent of the eligible voters in East Jerusalem – had cast their ballots. Hundreds of others didn’t make it to the polls in time. This success was reflected in the city council. Kollek, who headed the Alignment Party, won an absolute majority for the first and only time – 16 out of 31 seats.

In the 1973 elections Benvenisti tried to repeat the triumph. But at this stage the Palestinians knew their legal status had nothing to do with voting. By then the PLO had strengthened in East Jerusalem and resistance to the vote increased, although in every election campaign there were calls on the Palestinians to vote. Only 7.5 percent voted. The boycott was maintained almost fully from then until the last local elections, in 2013, in which less than 1 percent of the Palestinians voted.

In 1998, five years after the failure at Orient House, Uzi Baram tried his luck. Then a senior Labor politician, Baram ran Kollek’s campaign several times, served as a minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet and was a well-known figure in the city.

Baram, pressured by the party to run, had a majority of the secular voters’ support, but none among the ultra-Orthodox. “I realized I wouldn’t be elected without the Arabs,” he says.

He had good relations with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, and a few months before the election he traveled to Ramallah for a meeting with Arafat, brokered by Ahmad Tibi. “I asked him to call on them to vote, or not to prevent them from voting,” says Baram.

Arafat seemed inclined to agree, but shortly after the meeting Baram was informed by Arafat’s bureau chief that his request was denied. Baram withdrew his candidacy.

A decade later, in the 2008 campaign, businessman Arkady Gaydamak tried his luck with East Jerusalem’s Palestinians. Some three weeks before the elections he met the city’s mufti, spread promises and donations and met other Palestinian figures. Some thought he was close to success. But on election day Gaydamak, too, found out that the Palestinians were staying home. The turnout was meager and Gaydamak got 3.5 percent of the overall votes.

In between, a few Palestinian figures tried to contend but usually met with resistance, sometimes violent. In 1989 Hanna Siniora set up a list and both his cars were torched, and he stepped down. Other Palestinians who said they would run for office in almost every campaign ultimately succumbed to pressure and changed their minds.

So far two Palestinian residents said they would run in October for the city council, and last week a joint Israeli-Palestinian list was formed. East Jerusalem’s 180,000 registered eligible voters could bring about an electoral upheaval in the municipality. In 2013 Nir Barkat was elected mayor with 111,000 votes.

But the Palestinian political mainstream strongly objects to taking part in the local elections. Even if the leadership did encourage residents to vote, the indifference and political desperation in the eastern part of the city is likely to result in a low turnout.

Today Nusseiba says it would be a mistake to vote. “Considering the circumstances and recent events, I think it would be seen by the international community, Trump and Israel, as though it’s possible to take Jerusalem out of the equation, as though this issue has been solved. So now it’s important for Jerusalem’s Palestinians to be part of the Palestinian entity,” he says.

“I don’t agree that they’re punishing themselves,” says Benvenisti. “People think the Arabs’ vote will make the difference, but in this the Israelis are evading responsibility. The racism and neglect are stronger than the vote and the Israeli system will continue to oppress them. It’s all pipe dreams. The solution for Jerusalem is not in the city council’s polling booths.”

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