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ISRAEL TURNS 50 Independence jubilee kickoff may be postponed until spring

JERUSALEM, Nov. 16 (JTA) – Is Israel ready to celebrate 50 years of statehood? “The plans are in a state of chaos, and unless something is done very soon to put them back on track, it could be a disappointing year,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The source said the budget for the commemorations has been halved from $70 million to $35 million, but denied reports that it had been slashed to $14 million. Jubilee planners have been facing budgetary problems, bureaucratic infighting and public indifference – complications that may force Israel to postpone the start of its 50th anniversary celebrations for several months. Government officials concede that the majority of events have not yet been scheduled even though festivities are supposed to be launched Dec. 23, the first night of Chanukah. The array of problems has become so acute that Israeli officials are now seriously considering delaying the yearlong series of events until Independence Day, on the Hebrew date of the 4th of Iyar, which falls next year on April 30, and scaling back their planned celebrations in the Diaspora. Plans for the jubilee began to fall apart earlier this year, when key officials on the organizing committee started squabbling. The fallout from those fights came during the summer, when three top committee members resigned – Tourism Minister Moshe Katzav, the committee’s director-general; retired Gen. Yossi Peled, the committee chairman; and Haim Slotsky, who was to serve as producer of the events. According to media reports, the three resigned over professional disagreements and in response to charges that jubilee events stressed the achievements of Ashkenazi Jews at the expense of Sephardi Jews and Israeli minorities. The three also faced accusations in the Israeli press that they had indulged in nepotism and used the committee’s facilities for their own private purposes – charges they denied. Katzav, who returned to the committee’s helm earlier this month, and former Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai’i, who just assumed the post of chairman, are now reportedly working overtime to put the anniversary plans back on track. They are racing not only against the clock, but have a new problem to confront: public apathy. Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, has called the 50th anniversary celebrations “a cake that didn’t rise. There is no mood for celebrating and no one to do it with.” This view appears to be shared by many Israelis, who believe that the money and effort could be better spent. “This is a total waste of taxpayer money,” said a soldier who gave his name only as Yigal. “The country is a mess, and no one I know feels much like celebrating. I know we’ve achieved a lot in 50 years, but not as much as we could or should have.” Rafi Eldad, director of public affairs at the Interior Ministry, disagrees. “In my opinion, Israel has done remarkable things, and the 50th anniversary will give us the opportunity to let the world know.” Looking back over the past 50 years, Eldad said, “We can see the spectacular advances in education, the economy and culture the country has achieved. “Israel is more than terrorist attacks. The jubilee will, hopefully, present Israel in its entirety.” Noting that the Interior Ministry has been planning Diaspora events for more than a year, Eldad said many exhibitions, concerts and special programs have already been finalized. “We’ve been working with our embassies all over the world and have produced material in seven languages. We’re involving local Jewish communities as well as heads of state.” On the first night of Chanukah, Eldad said, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and several other heads of state will light a candle to mark the start of the 50th anniversary year. “We’re hoping President Clinton will light a candle in the White House,” he said, “but that hasn’t been confirmed yet.” A preliminary list of events is available on the Internet at: http://www.israel-mfa.gov.il/events50.html

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