JERUSALEM without Mayor Teddy Kollek is hard to imagine. Mr. Kollek, who has been in office for the past 28 years, has become almost as famous as many of the city's landmarks.
But as Jerusalemites vote in municipal elections tomorrow, many are going to be thinking the unthinkable. ``Teddy,'' as he is known to friends and enemies alike, may have reached the end of the road. Mr. Kollek is neck and neck in opinion polls with challenger Ehud Olmert, a minister in Yitzhak Shamir's former Likud government, who has campaigned almost exclusively on one theme: The mayor is too old.
At 83, Kollek disappointed even his supporters by running for a seventh term since he said last year that ``only a fool would run at my age, and only a fool would vote for him if he did.''
But that was before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin strong-armed him into the race, convincing him that nobody else could keep City Hall out of the Likud's hands.
Kollek has responded to Mr. Olmert's comments on his age with attacks on his rival's character, branding him a liar and worse, in a campaign that has been as dirty and as devoid of issues as any political commentator here can remember.
The emptiness of the debate is particularly striking because these are momentous days for Jerusalem, the holy city that is at the heart of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians; both peoples claim the city as their capital.
Although negotiations on Jerusalem's future have been put off until the end of the peace talks for fear that the issue could blow up the whole process, the question looms large on the horizon.
KOLLEK and Olmert are agreed that Jerusalem should eternally remain the undivided capital of Israel, as it was declared in 1967 when Israeli troops captured East Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day War.
The mayor, however, is playing up his image as a conciliatory man, whose pragmatism has helped secular and orthodox Jews and Christian and Muslim Palestinians to live more or less peacefully together in a potentially explosive city.
``The real issue ... is can we run a city in which minorities can feel comparatively well, or will we run a city for Israelis exclusively, where minorities are gradually pushed out,'' Kollek argues. If Olmert wins tomorrow, ``there will be a lot more tension between Arabs and Jews, and what this city needs is quiet.''
Since Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli rule 26 years ago, Kollek has always seen the city as a mosaic, with different peoples living in their own neighborhoods, and he is fond of quoting poet Robert Frost's line that ``good fences make good neighbors.''
Applying this policy, he has fiercely opposed efforts by militant Jewish settlers to move into houses on Palestinian streets, which he says is simply provocative. But he defends the right of Israelis to build new neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and he relishes his reputation as the greatest builder of Jerusalem since King Herod.
He earned it by presiding over a program that has housed more than 150,000 Jews in East Jerusalem, making Palestinians a minority in their own quarter. At the same time, Palestinians get only 5 percent of the city budget, even though they comprise close to 30 percent of the population.
``Like any Israeli mayor, Kollek has been a good mayor for [Jewish] West Jerusalem,'' complains Nabil Feidy, a Palestinian money changer, ``but not for our Jerusalem. I don't think that if Olmert comes, things will get worse.''
Palestinians have traditionally boycotted municipal elections, refusing to accept Israeli sovereignty. But with Kollek facing a serious challenge for the first time, and his campaign workers actively seeking the Palestinian vote, that might change this year.