JERUSALEM (Apr. 30)
With a heavy dose of pomp and sentimentality, Vice President Al Gore joined Israel in celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Gore began his two-day visit to Israel by focusing on Israel’s future potential during a visit to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. He then traveled on to Jerusalem, where he sought to put aside the troubled state of the peace process to focus on Israel’s accomplishments.
After a sprint through Jerusalem for ceremonial visits at the president’s and prime minister’s offices, Gore made an afternoon speech to some 400 United Jewish Appeal donors.
He told them that the trip was an “opportunity to proclaim with you, during a moment of deep importance for all humanity, our eternal commitment to Israel’s security, prosperity and freedom.”
But with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat next week in London, Gore could not escape the inevitable speculation that he would try to negotiate peace in scheduled meetings with the premier Friday and with Arafat the following day in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
But there were some who sought to downplay this speculation.
“The right thing for the vice president to do is to let the other people on the team do their jobs,” said a senior administration official who stressed that Gore would not insinuate himself as a negotiator in the peace process.
Instead, Gore would encourage and listen to the parties, the official said.
Just the same, Gore’s words of support for Israel’s security were not lost on Israeli officials.
Turning to Netanyahu during an arrival ceremony in Jerusalem, Gore said that as Israel faces its next 50 years the most important truth is that “as Israel fulfills its destiny, the United States of America will never let you stand alone.”
“The United States will stand side by side with you in your pursuit of security,” he added.
Gore expanded on the theme during his remarks to the UJA donors.
“Israelis want and deserve more security,” he said. “They want peace, not just a peace process.”
In his only comment directly referring to the Palestinians, Gore added, “That is why we have pressed the Palestinians for 100 percent efforts against terror and violence, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
For the most part, Gore’s day focused on the jubilee celebration.
The most senior foreign dignitary to attend the day’s festivities, Gore was a featured speaker at the extravaganza, “Jubilee Chimes,” held Thursday night at a Jerusalem stadium.
In a speech there heavy on Biblical references and Hebrew prayers, Gore invoked the story of how Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him years after they had sold him to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt.
“If those who persecuted you, despised you and murdered you could see this glorious celebration tonight, would they even recognize you?” Gore said.
“I recognize you,” he added.
Calling America’s ties to Israel “eternal,” Gore drew loud cheers when he recited in Hebrew the Shehecheyanu — the prayer thanking God for “keeping us alive and sustaining us and enabling us to reach this day.”
Netanyahu, who took the podium after him, thanked the United States for being Israel’s partner in its “quest for security and peace.”
The two then sat back and enjoyed the show as fireworks lit the Jerusalem sky.
For the Israeli public at large, the festivities and partying began Wednesday evening, when the two-day Independence Day celebrations were ushered in with the blowing of rams horns and fireworks displays.
On Thursday, the holiday-making picked up where the previous night’s dancing and celebrating left off, with Israelis going to beaches, parks and picnic grounds.
Along Tel Aviv’s beaches, thousands of people gathered to watch the traditional navy display. The commander of the air force Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, led a fly-by that included parachuting demonstrations.
Despite the festive events, the acute political issues that have figured so prominently in day to day life were felt as well on Independence Day.
Thousands of right-wing Israelis gathered Thursday to lay a symbolic cornerstone at the site of a controversial new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.
Separated by a police line, hundreds of supporters of Peace Now held a counter- demonstration against any construction at Har Homa.
The Palestinian Authority suspended negotiations with Israel more than one year ago after Israel began infrastructure work at the site.
To the consternation of the right-wing demonstrators gathered there on Independence Day, Netanyahu never authorized the start of housing construction there.
Meanwhile, stepped up numbers of security forces were stationed throughout the nation’s large cities and at popular tourist sites. In a further security measure, Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip until the end of the two-day holiday.
A discordant note also came from Israel’s fervently Orthodox community, where there is the belief that the Jewish state should not have been created until the coming of the Messiah. Within the community, many refused to celebrate.
Tensions between observant and secular Israelis also surfaced at the Jubilee Chimes extravaganza.
On Wednesday, representatives of the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community, filed a petition at the High Court of Justice to prevent a modern dance performance that they considered immodest from being included in the extravaganza.
At issue was a number by the renowned Batsheva Dance Company, during which the dancers strip down to their underwear.
Jerusalem Deputy Housing Minister Haim Miller said the performance offended the sensitivities of the haredi community and should be struck from the program.
The court rejected the petition, but jubilee organizers scrambled to reach a compromise with the artistic director of the performance. Officials from the premier’s and president’s offices were also enlisted to try to find a solution.
Members of the troupe said that a compromise calling for the performers to wear tights and not strip down to their underwear had been made under political pressure.
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)