Commentary Magazine


Jerusalem-What Next?

The midrehov is the jumping pedestrian mall in the Jewish—the secular-Jewish—part of Jerusalem. One Friday morning at the end of October 1993, the eighty-two-year-old Teddy Kollek, during whose terms of office as Jerusalem’s mayor the midrehov and much else was built, sat outside the Cafe Atara gnawing his strudel and fielding more complaints than expressions of homage.

“Teddy, the city’s filthy,” the old gent heard one of the citizens and possible voters in the crowd jostling around his table yell. “Teddy, the hoodlums make noise all night in my neighborhood and don’t let me sleep,” a woman reported. “Teddy Kollek!” an American tourist cried. “My wife has to have your autograph!”

The mayor juggled his cigar and fork and pen and reading glasses and obliged. He assured the man who had complained about the filth that the problem was only the campaign posters and fliers pasted and strewn everywhere, to be cleaned up as soon as this municipal election was over, and he made a note to himself on an index card to look into the noise in the sleep-deprived woman’s neighborhood.

But forget the racket there: the debates going on in the crowd around him were not exactly modulated. “Teddy’s selling out to the Arabs!” shouted one heckler. “Nonsense! It’s [his Likud challenger Ehud] Olmert who’s selling out to the ultra-Orthodox!” came the response. Kollek flared: “Will you all shut up!” And then someone really lit his fuse: “You wanted to retire and they wouldn’t let you! After everything you’ve accomplished! Your Honor, with all due respect, it’s time you relaxed! A man your age! Everybody knows that if you win you don’t intend to serve your term!”

Kollek exploded: “No one made me run! I make my own decisions! And I’m going to serve a full term! You can bet on it!” Much of the crowd seemed to forgive—no, to enjoy—his choler. “That’s right!” a man shouted. “You should live to 120! I’m Likud and you’re Labor, but I’ve always voted for you and I’m going to vote for you again!” To which Kollek muttered: “We’ll see if you do.” The noise was rising, feeding on itself, people were tugging at his sleeve and talking all at once. “Back off!” he shouted. Finally Kollek’s aide settled the bill and the mayor in his New Balance running shoes pushed his way to the car, limping and shouting back at the cheering, booing, laughing crowd.

Not long after Kollek left, Ehud Olmert materialized and began working the midrehov. He was preceded by a Likud Member of Knesset, Benjamin (“Benny”) Begin, son of Menachem, calling out, “All right everybody! Come meet your next mayor!” The beaming Olmert would not leave a hand unshaken or a baby unkissed.

About half Kollek’s age, Olmert had joined Yitzhak Shamir in voting against the elder Begin’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, and this past September had loyally sided with almost everyone in his party against the Rabin-Arafat handshake. Yet as viewers of Nightline remember, Olmert is no fire-eating right-winger. This native-born Israeli is as breezy as a deal-maker with a law degree in a free country must be. Despite that pair of historic votes, most of the Laborites his age who run the media believe that in his heart Olmert agrees with them about the peace process.

The crowd he was now working seemed to hold nothing against him. Unlike for the beloved Kollek, there were no catcalls, only cheers. Olmert was slapped on the back in a shop where you can buy religious junk. He pressed flesh at the Atara. His progress down the midrehov built by Teddy was triumphant.

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So much had been done and so many good things built by Kollek in his more than quarter of a century in office! How was it, one wondered, that the Jews of this notoriously hard, intolerant, ungrateful town, this town of gloomy memories and ethnic prides and meannesses and messianic reveries, had over and over again elected as their mayor a liberal, a dove, a pragmatist, an optimistic doer, “a stainless idealist” in his friend Saul Bellow’s words?

There was no lack of explanations for the fact that Kollek had been unbeatable in Jerusalem for 28 years. For one thing, although the Zionism he learned as a youngster in Vienna had been larded with socialism, and although the first thing he and his wife did when they got to the Land of Israel in 1935 was to help found a kibbutz, for a long time Kollek’s connections with the Labor party had not been too close. In fact, he was elected to his first term in city hall—in 1965—as the candidate of Rafi, a renegade grouping of then-young men like Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres who had followed their teacher and master, David Ben-Gurion, out of Labor and into what looked like the wilderness.

Some of the Rafi-ites went back to Labor on their own terms after the Six-Day War, and Kollek himself ran twice as an incumbent on the Labor ticket. But in 1978, with Begin the Prime Minister and Jerusalem a Begin town, Kollek cut himself loose. He and his slate ran alone, winning bigger than ever.

In other words, he had the option of playing the independent. Nor was he hurt by his style and fabled temper. He was known for leaping out of his car and dressing down tourists who picked flowers on public property. He dozed on the podium during speeches by other notables, calling it a mitzvah, a religious duty. In his seventies he pushed and chased teenage punks organized by Likud who tried to block his way in Kiryat Hayovel, one of the poorer, rougher neighborhoods. The dovish Kollek looked and behaved more like a bear or a bull, and this helped with those voters who value a man, one whom you cross at your peril. It explains in part why the stereotypical Jerusalem cabbie, a Likudnik whose parents were born in Morocco or Kurdistan, would have a Begin decal stuck on one side of the windshield of his Mercedes, and a Teddy decal on the other.

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Yet if Kollek had been only his own man and more than a bit of a beast, that still would not have been enough to make him apparently mayor-for-life, or earn him two and sometimes three times as many votes as the sacrificial lambs Likud used to run against him. Even his habit of showing up anywhere at any hour of the day or night, of pitching in during fires and blizzards like Fiorello La Guardia, would not have ingratiated him sufficiently in a city as hard and earthly as this one. He still needed to be seen to get things done for all sorts of unsentimental people.

And indeed, his era, his reign, coincided with the greatest boom in Jerusalem in a couple of millennia. When Teddy took over in 1965, the two halves of the city, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Jordanian, were breathing on one lung apiece. West Jerusalem was a dead end, three-quarters ringed by barbed wire and minefields. It was a half-town immortalized by Amos Oz in his novel, My Michael—spectral, truncated, shabby, where thin cats prowled the alleys and bored Jewish housewives dreamed of Arab shepherds. When the sun went down and the moon rose, both sides of town were as quiet as a cemetery—no, quieter, for ears were pricked for gunshots. It was a good place for the kind of people who had collected in Jerusalem for centuries, which is to say for poets, beggars, madmen, losers. Ordinary citizens had little to do. Therefore many packed up and moved, while the newly-arrived Afro-Asian immigrants fretted and festered in brand-new instant slums like Kiryat Hayovel.

Within two years of Kollek’s inauguration, Jerusalem’s cats were sleek. Was the change attributable to him, or did he merely happen to be in office when the Israeli army conquered the eastern sector of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War? Whether Teddy was mayor by chance or design in 1967, the fact was that Jerusalemites linked him with the disappearance of the barbed wire and the galvanizing and fattening-up and mundane improvement of their city.

In truth the mayor had more than a little to do with this prosperity. As hard as Kollek found it to suffer his fellow Israelis, he was angelic with foreigners. To watch him buttering up a prospective American or European donor was to learn the meaning of a charm offensive. His Rolodex was something else: Isaac Stern and Marc Chagall, Graham Greene and Liv Ullmann, Willy Brandt and Ed Koch, presidents and prime ministers, and many, many millionaires, none very likely to depart his city without donating art to the Israel Museum, which Kollek founded, or money to the Jerusalem Foundation, which he chaired. He had, since the Six-Day War, squeezed a third of a billion dollars out of his wealthier friends abroad—for playgrounds, clinics, synagogue and church renovations, clubhouses for immigrants and Arabs, parks, concerts, seminars where Jews and Arabs talked about peaceful coexistence. All this churned up jobs for the locals as well.

But Kollek was not just a Bürgermeister in the Orient, looking out for the welfare of his constituents. He was also a missionary, lobbying nonstop to persuade the world that sovereignty in the whole of Jerusalem was rightly and not just temporarily Israel’s. The world came to him, he frequently went out to it, and he never tired of explaining that Jerusalem, while important to Christians and Muslims, was the heart and soul of the Jewish people. Only they had remembered it every day for 2,000 years. Besides, Israel was scrupulously keeping the Holy Places accessible to everyone, unlike the Jordanians who had prevented Jews from coming to the Western Wall. The only right and practical answer to the not-quite-closed question of Jerusalem was Israeli sovereignty coupled with a measure of neighborhood autonomy for the Palestinians.

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It seemed over the years that the facts on the ground—tolerance was the byword of Kollek’s rule, and the city was fairly peaceful—were influencing people in many places. Then came the intifada, which began in 1987 and soon infected the city. Arabs stabbed Jews, Jews retaliated. Many Jews were afraid to cross into the Old City, and some Tel Avivians were afraid to let their kids visit any part of the capital on school outings. “Coexistence is in ruins,” Kollek said, only to deny when quoted that he had said it. Harder leftists, who disdained Kollek’s attempts to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox, and disapproved of his Zionism, smiled to watch his life’s project seemingly going down the drain; others pitied him as a tragic figure. The Right sensed an era winding up.

In the 1989 election, although he crushed his opponent for the mayoralty, Kollek’s list was denied a majority on the council. This was due to an increase in votes for militantly secular and ultra-Orthodox parties among the Jews, and to the lowest turnout ever by the Palestinians, the latter a result of the intifada. Kollek soldiered on, falling ill and recovering, making a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox “black hats,” insisting truthfully that Jerusalem remained safer for tourists than Manhattan.

Nevertheless, he had said repeatedly in the last few years that he was tired and was going to retire. He himself, he told one of the Hebrew papers, would not vote in 1993 for a man his age. But something, if not someone, then persuaded him otherwise. In a letter to the New York Times dated June 15, 1993, he explained: “Only the conviction that a Likud-party victory [in the upcoming municipal election] would bring irreparable harm to Jerusalem . . . and possibly to the peace process, made me decide” to run again. And in a letter to his many friends abroad, dated on the morrow of the Rabin-Arafat handshake, he wrote: “My decision . . . was not an easy one. . . . But there were considerations too important to ignore”—namely, that in the next few years, more than ever before, the city would be “under the microscope of the world.” Thus his name led the Labor/One Jerusalem list yet again.

The campaign, even for Israel, was remarkably unsportsmanlike. Kollek’s One Jerusalem went negative immediately. Olmert, proclaimed its posters and fliers uglifying the city, was “a liar . . . a disgrace.” The tone went downhill from there.

Olmert’s handlers advised him not to attack Teddy frontally, and he never did. If “We Love You Teddy” was the slogan of Labor/One Jerusalem, “The Time Has Come” was the slogan of Likud’s United Jerusalem slate, meaning that Kollek had done great things but now was really too old. The low blows at the hero were indirect, the main idea being that Kollek was a pawn in the hands of dovish ideologues and Labor hacks who had forced him to run and who, if he did win, planned to usher him into retirement and carry out their own agenda of redividing the city in the name of a fraudulent peace.

Fair or unfair, these hits damaged Kollek. Nor had Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin done him any good by suggesting that the local elections around the country, and especially this one in Jerusalem, should be considered “referendums” on the handshake. Rabin had promised in the 1992 national elections never to deal with the PLO, and now would not hear of an actual referendum, claiming that the squeaker of a vote he had won in the Knesset was enough. Moreover, his ploy was risky, especially in the capital. For Teddy’s long reign notwithstanding, Jerusalem remained a hawkish town.

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Much of the real campaign drama was played out not on the midrehov, but in rabbinical backrooms in Mea Shearim and in the eastern, Arab, sector of the city.

Traditionally, the ultra-Orthodox haredim (literally, “God-fearers”) had run their own candidates for both mayor and the 31-person council. Their mayoralty candidate had never made it, but with each campaign they were able to elect more councilors, whom Kollek had seen politic to fold into his coalition. With Teddy in a real fight now, however, Agudat Yisrael-Degel Hatorah, the combined haredi party, was in a position to decide his fate. If its candidate, the young and skilled Meir Porush, dropped out, and if the aged Gerer rebbe then gave the word, and if neither the secular Jews nor the Palestinians came to Kollek’s rescue, Ehud Olmert would be the next mayor of Jerusalem.

Likud’s United Jerusalem was therefore frantically wooing Porush, and Labor’s One Jerusalem was just as frantically trying to dissuade him. So concerned was the national Labor party that both Rabin and Peres found the time to intervene.

Not only the picturesque Mea Shearim quarter, dating from the last century, but also the newer haredi neighborhoods around it constitute strongholds of voters more or less obedient to their rabbis’ wishes. The haredim, who vote in droves, were perhaps the heaviest cross Kollek had had to bear. He had tried over the years to meet their politician-rabbis more than halfway, he had made coalitions with them even when the numbers did not require it, he had spent money he did not have for bypass roads so that Sabbath traffic would not be stoned—all with little effect. He was probably more unpopular today in these basically anti-Zionist neighborhoods than in the Arab ones. “Kollek Bad for the Jews!” stated a poster in Mea Shearim. “Olmert Good for the Jews!”

One could understand the haredim. They had been obeying the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, with the result that now they had to compete with secular Israelis for building permits and school funds, while the mayor with his everlasting prattle about tolerance and pluralism built cinemathèques that were open on the Sabbath, handed out pub licenses, and okayed the construction of a Mormon university. He seemed determined to convert Jerusalem into a poor imitation of Tel Aviv, itself a poor imitation of L.A. Well, the haredim, who had been in the city before the secular Zionists, were not reconciling themselves, not to the man and not to his plans. Even while the last-minute dealing went on, the posters had appeared: “It’s a Mitzvah to Stop Kollek! Don’t Let the Arabs Have the Deciding Vote!”

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The haredi neighborhoods press right up against the west side of the new Highway 1. On the east side the spices and music are different, the religion and nationalism are different. More than one in four Jerusalemites is Arab, and more than a quarter-century after Moshe Dayan had the anti-sniper walls removed and the city was declared united, the Arabs have not reconciled themselves. On the contrary. More than ever they feel occupied, besieged, and denied in what they consider their own city, though now maybe, they think, just maybe, their dawn is finally breaking.

To be sure, Palestinian euphoria attending the handshake has faded. Everyone on this side of town knows that the Jews are not about to get out of any part of Jerusalem any time soon. The dawn is not going to break by itself. Meanwhile, a sort of life goes on, a blend of suspense and ennui. A general strike is held on the ninth of every month to commemorate the day when the intifada started in 1987 and to show that, handshake or no handshake, it is not over. There are also Hamas strikes on the seventeenth of the month and Islamic Jihad strikes on the sixth, the prudent merchant being well-advised to observe them all.

It was precisely Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and the relatively mild civilian regime of Teddy Kollek, which bred the embryonic institutions of Palestinian statehood here. If the Arabs in this part of the city suffered, they did so in style. Without having to take Israeli citizenship, and retaining their Jordanian passports, they enjoyed Israeli social security and medical insurance. They were spared the aggravation of having to get a permit from the military government to cross the Jordan River for business or pleasure. No wonder East Jerusalem lured migrants from Hebron and other West Bank towns. In fact, notwithstanding the scarcity of building permits, the number of Arabs in the enlarged city had increased faster since the Six-Day War than the number of Jews, giving Israeli geopoliticians the feeling of running on a treadmill. The birth rate here was almost up to that of Mea Shearim.

As the municipal election of 1993 loomed, it was hard to find anyone in East Jerusalem, young or old, who professed to care much or intended to vote. For one thing, Arafat had let it be known that Arabs should not participate, the rationale being, as always, that participation meant recognition of Jewish sovereignty. Palestinians have learned under occupation, however, to think and act for themselves, so even without faxes from the chairman they probably would have chosen to vote by not voting.

Over the years, Palestinian opinion on Kollek had been divided. Few if any East Jerusalemites considered him their mayor. Yet some appreciated, even liked, the man, not because his foundation might build a clinic for them here or a library there, but because he spared their feelings whenever he could and because a less tactful Jew in city hall might have rendered life even drearier. Your passivity, Kollek used to say to the Arabs in his bailiwick, harms your interests. If you won’t actually run for municipal office, at least help yourselves by voting for me. Some Palestinians had formerly consented. Added to the Arab garbagemen, clerks, social workers, etc. who drew a salary from the municipality, enough of them might defy the PLO and go to the polls to give Labor/One Jerusalem its majority on the city council.

As against those who saw Kollek in a relatively good light, however, there were the sworn nationalists and certain of the Muslim and Christian faithful who, like their leftist Israeli friends, intensely disliked the mayor. These parties hated Teddy for putting a humane face on the rapid, dismaying, perhaps irreversible Judaization of the whole city.

Kollek in this light was not a dove or bull or bear but a fox, like so many Labor Zionists before him. Was it not under him that a massive pincer of new Jewish neighborhoods encroached across the Green Line? Was it not under Kollek, albeit over his protests and crocodile tears, that Ariel Sharon made a home in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City? Was it not under the liberal, tolerant, understanding Teddy that building permits for Palestinians were granted once in a blue moon, while so-called “illegal” Palestinian structures were regularly demolished? Kollek was a Zionist. That said it all. The prevailing opinion among the Arabs of the city in October 1993 was that the aging Kollek and the young Olmert were, as a Palestinian guide on the Temple Mount put it to a visitor, “two sides of the same coin.”

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The wheeling and dealing in Mea Shearim climaxed unsurprisingly with Meir Porush withdrawing his candidacy in return for a bundle of favors from Olmert. The word had gone out to the haredim. Now Faisal Husseini, Arafat’s man in East Jerusalem, told his compatriots to vote, the necessary thing being to stop Likud from taking over the city. Shimon Peres spent election day, November 2, which is also the date of the publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, closeted with King Hussein in his palace in Amman. A ride around Jerusalem made the projections on Israel TV that evening superfluous.

The action at polling stations in secular Jewish neighborhoods was light; in the haredi neighborhoods it boomed; and in East Jerusalem it was, until the sun went down, nonexistent. Even under cover of darkness and with Husseini’s statement, One Jerusalem was able to get only 7 percent of enfranchised Palestinians to vote (double the percentage, it must be said, of the Arab turnout in 1989). But if East Jerusalem sat out this exercise in democracy, Mea Shearim appeared to think of nothing else. The yeshiva boys got the day off; those with drivers’ licenses ferried the old and the bedridden to the polls so they could sweep Olmert in and Teddy out. Meanwhile, all day, right up to the closing of the polls, the One Jerusalem sound trucks laid their pleas on the secular neighborhoods. “Jerusalemites, don’t let the haredim take over!” In vain.

It was agreed in post-mortems that Labor and Kollek had made every possible mistake, his worst being to run again. Ha’aretz, the liberal paper, was for giving Olmert a chance. It asked him to be firm with the haredim and sensitive with the Arabs. The hard-Left, militantly secular Kol Ha’ir painted a nightmare of street closings, haredi takeovers, the accelerated flight of secular Israelis to the coastal plain, Arab riots when Olmert would try to sabotage the peace process with new Jewish building in East Jerusalem. A local Fatah spokesman was quoted as saying that if the new mayor let more Jews settle across the Green Line, the PLO would get the world’s attention by taking to the streets.

Kollek was not gracious in defeat. He exchanged telephone condolences with Mayor David Dinkins, who had lost in New York the same day, but failed to congratulate Olmert until four days later. “Olmert’s way is no good,” the old lion said after midnight. “I’m sorry for Jerusalem.” He particularly blamed the secular Jews who had acted so badly and now would have to live with the consequences.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the very secular head of Likud, was probably right when he said in his own post-mortem that the secular voters let Kollek go down because the possibility of a deal with the Arabs had repelled them more than the certainty of one with the haredim. Rabin himself artlessly shouldered responsibility, having convinced Kollek to run. He doggedly repeated that the election had been a referendum on his own policies and that the results would “send a negative message around the world.” The Right agreed. Netanyahu: “It’s a historic victory with wide-scale political significance.” Likud MK Dan Meridor: “The message is that Jerusalem is not a subject for negotiations, even if the whole peace process is at stake.”

Mayor-elect Olmert himself either did not quite know what he intended to try to do now that the prize was his, or purposely broadcast mixed signals. On the one hand, he declared that the status quo in Jerusalem as between secular and haredim was sacrosanct, and pledged that it would not be touched; on the other hand, the haredi politicians, escorted by mobs of yeshiva boys, were the first he received. On the one hand, he said that making foreign policy was not a mayor’s job; on the other, he said that he would do what he could to narrow the government’s options on Jerusalem. On the one hand, he said that he would give the Arabs of the city the services they lacked and try to lower the nationalistic temperature; on the other, he said that Jews have a right to live anywhere they please, and insofar as it was in his power, he would speed the building of more Jewish neighborhoods until the ring of settlement around East Jerusalem was complete and repartition truly impossible.

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Bringing us to the question of questions: is it possible that an Israeli government would entertain the idea of giving away sovereignty in Jerusalem? A few years ago, the distinguished historian Conor Cruise O’Brien, another of Teddy’s friends, thought not: “It is as certain as anything can be that the state of Israel will not give up any part of its capital, Jerusalem, for anything at all, even peace.” After the handshake, though, and considering some trial balloons flown by members of the Rabin government, one has to wonder.

Does Yitzhak Rabin, commander of the brigade which broke the siege of West Jerusalem in 1948 and chief of staff of the Israeli army when the rest of Jerusalem was conquered in 1967, intend to allow the Arab-populated sector to become the capital of a Palestinian state? If not, why did he reverse himself and agree to include Jerusalem in the permanent-status negotiations with the PLO, to commence no later than April 14, 1996? And if Rabin meant it when he said his native country would never give up any part of its capital, why did he agree to let the Arabs of East Jerusalem both vote and run in the elections for the interim Palestinian council in the soon-to-be-evacuated West Bank, to be held no later than July 1994? Nothing is going to be given up easily, but in light of Rabin’s agreement to let the Palestinians raise the issue, neither is it going to be easy to keep Jerusalem out of play.

Nor, frankly, is the Israeli man-in-the-street so clear about this issue as one might suppose. Granted, if you ask whether Jerusalem should have concertinas of barbed wire through it again, even an MTV-fixated youngster in Tel Aviv will say no. The Likudnik taxi driver in Jerusalem goes farther; as far as Jerusalem is concerned, he asserts, the Arabs will have to forget it. Grill him, though, and you learn that it has been years since he drove into East Jerusalem, that he knows and accepts the fact that the city is disunited, and that he has not the slightest attachment to its non-Jewish neighborhoods.

This potential softness in what is assumed to be the hard Israeli consensus is no secret to those in the know. Israeli doves in and out of government, foreign busybodies, not to mention the Palestinians, hope to foster it until sufficient numbers of Israelis are ready to contemplate Jerusalem as the site of two capitals.

If this were to happen, it would not only mean the undoing of Teddy Kollek’s life’s work. It could also deal a crippling symbolic blow to the whole as-yet-unfinished Zionist enterprise. When Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin mused publicly about Arab sovereignty in the Arab neighborhoods of the city, Kollek wrote to him, “Your [ideas] are totally incomprehensible. We saw in the reunification of the city in 1967 the practical realization of the Zionist movement’s goals. Will we now, with such ease, give up on a united Jerusalem?” The world’s most famous ex-mayor believes, with reason, that all such schemes are a guaranteed recipe for redivision: in no time, the minefields would be replanted.

A quite chaotic logic was loosed in the woods of Oslo and on the White House lawn, one which may or may not be stopped at the gates of Jerusalem. What is for sure is that the question of the city is not waiting politely on anyone’s diligently crafted timetable. The dovish Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai has likened that question to the most devilishly hard word in a crossword puzzle, answerable only if put aside for last. There is going to be no such reprieve, however. Starting now and ever more insistently over the next few years—with their anniversaries, target dates, and media spectaculars; with the final-status talks; with the pope, Arafat, and King Hussein in town hard on each others’ heels; with the centennial of Theodor Herzl’s one and only visit to Jerusalem, 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus, and the trimillennial celebrations of King David’s selection of a capital—the last word of the crossword puzzle will inexorably be filling itself in.

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