WASHINGTON (May. 8)
Jewish leaders have been promoting an appearance by President Bush at a gala later this month honoring Israel’s 55th birthday.
There’s just one catch: The White House says Bush was never invited — and doesn’t plan to attend.
Organizers of the event are blaming the Israeli Embassy in Washington, saying Ambassador Daniel Ayalon told them the embassy spoke with senior White House officials to make sure the event was placed on Bush’s calendar.
Embassy officials say they indeed mentioned the gala to senior administration officials.
When the Spirit of Israel Concert was announced in late February, organizers were steadfast that both Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would attend, though the White House would not confirm.
Jeanne Ellinport, executive director of the Israel Forever Foundation, which is organizing the event, said at the time that it was on Bush’s calendar.
Yet advertisements for the concert haven’t mentioned either Bush or Sharon, only the presence of “special guests.” The event is expected to feature performances by comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stein and singers Tony Bennett, Norah Jones and Tovah Feldshuh.
Still, reporters inquiring about the concert have been told that Bush and Sharon were expected to attend, generating a buzz in Washington.
Now, less than two weeks before the May 19 event, the White House says it received word of the gala only this week, and Bush won’t be able to attend because a state dinner has been scheduled with Gloria Arroyo, president of the Philippines.
“Not a single document ever came to the White House about the Israel concert,” a White House official said. “We have never even discussed it, because we never received anything.”
Sharon is expected to be in Washington sometime this month, but Israeli officials say it’s unclear whether he will be here for the gala.
Supporters of the event are less than convinced by the White House argument, claiming that it could be a political excuse.
Sources say Bush’s appearance at an event honoring Israel’s birthday would be seen around the world as presidential support for the Jewish state. Some feel that might harm U.S. efforts to serve as an impartial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
White House officials claim the concert first came to their attention through a gossip column in Tuesday’s Washington Post that noted Arab-American concern at the joint appearance at the gala by Bush and Sharon and wondered what signal it would send to the Arab world.
When asked about the Post item on Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeatedly and angrily called the report “inaccurate.”
“No, the president on that night has an event that will be announced shortly,” Fleischer said. “He had other plans with other foreign leaders that night.”
The White House officially announced the state dinner for Arroyo on Thursday.
Organizers of the event said they didn’t send a formal request to the White House to follow up on embassy assurances that Bush would attend because the embassy told them to not to.
“I specifically inquired of the ambassador about the scheduling of the president and the prime minister, and I was advised it was on the schedule and that scheduling matters were being handled by the embassy,” said Richard Heidemann, who is serving as national chair of the foundation with his wife, Phyllis.
Moshe Fox, minister of public affairs at the embassy, said he didn’t know if it the event indeed had been placed on the president’s calendar, but said “it was raised with White House officials.”
Heidemann said the embassy is working to find another administration official to appear on Bush’s behalf, and has asked for a videotaped message from the president.
Organizers hope to sell out the MCI Center in downtown Washington, which can hold close to 13,000 people, and to use the concert to launch Israel@55, a yearlong series of educational events across the United States.
Organizers would not comment on how many tickets had been sold.
Among the honorary chairmen of the event are Abe Pollin, the owner of the MCI Center; James Tisch, the chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations; and the incoming chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Mortimer Zuckerman, the conference’s current chairman.