Mayor: A critical time for Jerusalem
August 1, 2002
Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, wrapped up a week-long trip to the Americas, including stops in Brazil and Argentina, with a fund-raising speech at a residence in Aspen yesterday.
Before giving his lecture, Olmert sat down in an exclusive interview with The Aspen Times, to talk about the troubles he and his people are facing at home.
Speaking with charisma and a heavy Israeli accent, Olmert explained that he went to Argentina because “the Jewish community of Argentina is in a very bad situation because of the general situation. We are trying to find ways to help the Jews come to Israel, and the American Jewish community is always a major part of that.
“The Jewish communities in the world are very important to us. Strengthening the mutual bond between Jews and the state of Israel is a primary priority for our country at all times.”
The mayor explained that support by Americans for Jews around the world has increased greatly since Sept. 11, when most people in this country had their first real experience with terrorism.
“I think that the nature of the war on terrorism is better understood now by more Americans,” said Olmert. “I think that they’ve learned that this is not something that you can tolerate or acquiesce to, and they can look at challenges that Israel faces in a more threatening manner.”
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Although Olmert said his time in Argentina and Brazil proved to be beneficial, and he greatly appreciates the efforts of Americans in support of Israel, he finds it very difficult to be away from Jerusalem in light of recent events.
“This is the first time that I went away for a whole week,” he explained. “I took a big gamble, but I thought it was very important to talk to Jews in Argentina and Brazil because they are in a very difficult situation.”
At such a critical time in Jerusalem, when many people are afraid to leave their homes and go out in public, Olmert said the citizens of his city are being encouraged to go on with their daily lives.
“You can’t wait a week and think that it will be calm and then decide to go out,” he said. “It’s been about two years now, so what are you going to do? You’re not going to lock yourself in your room, you’re going to lead your life – and we do.”
The current violence has also critically affected the peace movement in Jerusalem, the mayor said. It is “deteriorating, not because people have stopped wanting peace,” but because they are beginning to have an appreciation for the situation and how peace must ultimately be achieved, he said.
Olmert said he dreams of a time when there will be peace in Jerusalem, and the rest of Israel. “Jerusalem is destined to be a city of equal relations between different groups and populations. This is the choice of another people; they’ve chosen Jerusalem to be the main target. I try to prevent this, and I hope that one day it will stop.”
While Olmert believes that Jerusalem can someday be a city in which many populations can co-exist, he is not willing to hand over certain sections of Jerusalem to a Palestinian nation.
“I will do everything I can in order to prevent it. I hope that they can live as equals with the Jewish community,” he said. “If you look at a timeline, Jerusalem is the most important city in the whole world, and it would become the capital of Palestine only because there is some minority of Palestinians living there. To make the city a capital of a Palestinian state that wasn’t even created here, I’ll do everything in the world that it will not happen. “
Olmert also shared his opinions on the recent killing of Sheik Salah Shehada, the commander of Hammas’ military wing who was killed along with 14 civilians on July 23.
“I was very happy that he was killed,” he said. “He deserved nothing less, and I’m very sorry that in this operation, as a result of incorrect information, innocent civilians were killed. I don’t know if all of the civilians that we killed were innocent, but some of them were and it was heartbreaking for us. It’s not something that we are used to doing and that we want to do.”
Regarding the suicide bombings in Jerusalem, which he referred to as “homicide bombings,” the mayor’s anger, as he waved his arms during the interview, was clear.
“They are trying to do it all the time, they tried to do it today,” he said. “They will try again and again. They will try to kill innocent civilians; for them killing innocent civilians is part of their life.”
Olmert mentioned that only hours prior to the interview there was a bombing at a falafel store in Jerusalem, near the mayor’s office. Fortunately, no one was injured, which he said is a rarity.
The bombings in Jerusalem have also had a major impact on the city’s economy, he said. “Obviously, the economic repercussions have been very serious. We have lost seventy-one percent of the tourists. Jerusalem is the most visited city in Israel, so it has affected hotels, restaurants, stores, businesses, everything.
Though the mayor said he is concerned about the economic impacts of the current crisis in the Middle East, he explained that much of the effort for reviving the economy is out of his hands.
“The economic policy of the state is run by the national government, not by the mayor,” Olmert said. “So, the only way to deal with it is to try to do things that would provide opportunity.”
As a result of the bombings, many of the city’s residents are afraid to spend time downtown. So Olmert said he is taking steps to help re-establish the depressed industries of downtown Jerusalem.
“What we are now doing for nine weeks is a series of public events,” he explained. “We are turning the entire downtown Jerusalem into an open air shopping area that would be protected by professional security agents. We will provide security to make people feel confident that they can come.
“We have also arranged special discounts on taxes for the downtown area because they’ve lost so much business.”
It is the mayor’s hope that his efforts to revive Jerusalem with such actions as added security will help people feel more secure and the city will again flourish.