Commentary: Ex-Bethlehem mayor dies at 80 was a moderate voice

In an unforgiving land, even in the worst of times, Elias Freij continued to insist that Jews and Arabs would, in the end, live in peace.

The former mayor of Bethlehem, who died in Amman on Sunday at age 80, was virtually the sole voice of moderation emanating from the Palestinian camp for many years, including the years of intifada.

"My views have been consistent," he said in an interview several years ago. "Arabs and Jews are destined to live together in this country. We cannot continue to live as enemies and fight each other forever."

Freij was a short, unimposing man with a soft voice and natural courtliness that some might have mistaken for deference. He did not cut the figure of a hero either in his appearance or in his moderate statements. Arab militants, in fact, issued death threats against him on the grounds that he was a Palestinian Uncle Tom who consorted with the enemy. They smashed the windshield of his car and painted "traitor" on the outside walls of his home.

However, Arab historians may in time recognize him as one of the outstanding Palestinian heroes of this period.

Defying the death threats was the least of it. Freij's heroism lay in having the courage to rise above the fray, to see in his presumed oppressor not a demon, but a rational being with recognizable motives and to believe it possible, despite the blows and humiliations of daily life, to engage him eventually in reasoned discourse.

He was an Arab patriot whose vision of peace never involved ceding land to Israel or accepting the idea of autonomy instead of statehood.

In 1982, after Israel's invasion of Lebanon, Freij attacked Yasser Arafat and the Arab world for waging fruitless wars and issuing hollow slogans. "Had the Arabs challenged Israel for peace and not for war many years ago, the outcome may have been more promising," he said.

When Anwar Sadat dared make such a challenge, he noted, the Arab world turned its back on him. Freij applauded Arafat six years later when the PLO leader declared his readiness for peace with Israel.

Always considered loyal to Jordan's King Hussein, Freij nevertheless declared that the PLO was the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. He served as tourism minister in the Palestinian Cabinet.

Although he never mastered Hebrew, Freij closely followed the Israeli political scene and admired some of its players, particularly former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. He was intrigued by Kollek's idea of raising funds for his municipality abroad through the Jerusalem Foundation, which he had established. Freij tried to emulate this with a Bethlehem Foundation, but it had only limited success in the United States.

During a conversation with a reporter several years ago, Freij remarked that he had had better success raising funds for his handsome new city hall in one of the Gulf states without the formalities of a foundation.

After initial phone contacts, he had flown to the Persian Gulf and was put up in an opulent hotel, where he was told to wait. After several days during which he hardly strayed from the lobby, someone appeared with a satchelful of money for the new building and he boarded the next plane home.

When Kollek was defeated in the last municipal elections in 1993, Freij was upset.

"I believe the Israeli electorate was unfair to Teddy," he said. "He has done more for Jerusalem than any other mayor in history."

Noting that the main reason for Kollek's defeat was his age — then 82 — Freij, who was himself 75, noted that China's leaders were much older. "And they're running a country of 1.2 billion people." He said he didn't "have the heart" to call Kollek after his defeat.

Yesterday, Kollek praised Freij, whom he termed "a good friend."

Speaking from the offices of the Jerusalem Foundation, where he is still active, Kollek said: "Whatever he did was for the benefit of his city, Bethlehem. We kept contact through all the difficult times."

Freij was born in Bethlehem into a Greek Orthodox family that traced its ancestry in the city back some five centuries.

He was serving as head of the city's chamber of commerce and was a member of the city council when the then-mayor of Bethlehem died in 1972. He was chosen by fellow council members as the successor and won the race for mayor in 1976, the last year municipal elections were held in the West Bank under Israeli rule.

The fact that Freij and most of the council members were Christian was an anomaly in a city that had long since acquired a Muslim majority. However, it afforded substance to Bethlehem's image as a Christian city, which was important for Christian pilgrimage, a mainstay of the local economy.

Freij vigorously opposed the idea of physical separation between Israel and a Palestinian entity, as proposed by many Israelis and Palestinians, in part at least because of the havoc he saw this playing with tourism. Jerusalem and Bethlehem constituted a single complex, he said; it would discourage tourism if people had to cross a border to get from one to the other. Instead, he advocated a Benelux-style confederation embracing Israel, Jordan and a Palestinian state.

Beset by ill health, Freij stepped down as mayor last year. He died in the hospital of kidney and heart failure after being admitted a week earlier for dialysis treatment. He is survived by his wife, Victoria, and six children: George, Mike, Raja, Marina, Norma and Nada.