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One Week Before Curtain, Gala for Israel’s 55th Abruptly Canceled

Just one week before it was to take place, a gala concert to mark Israel’s 55th birthday has been postponed until December, ostensibly because of a request from Ariel Sharon’s office.

The May 19 event at Washington’s MCI Center, which had been in the works for months, was postponed Tuesday because of the sensitive nature of the Israeli prime minister’s meeting the following day with President Bush, organizers say.

Organizers denied that poor ticket sales were a factor in the decision, but they refused to comment on how many tickets had been sold.

“Organizers were asked” by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, “to recognize it is a sensitive time and do everything they could to move it,” one official familiar with the discussions said. “We cannot have a party while these discussions are going on.”

Sharon is expected to meet Bush at the White House on May 20. The meeting could be tense because of Israel’s objections to the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and U.S. pressure on Israel to move forward on the plan.

Organizers originally said Bush and Sharon might attend the Spirit of Israel concert, but White House officials said last week that the event had never been placed on Bush’s calendar.

Sources had said it was unclear whether Sharon would attend: It would look bad if he skipped the event while in town, but anything he said at the event also could have been blown out of proportion, given his meeting at the White House the following day.

The concert was to have featured comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stein and singers Tony Bennett, Norah Jones and Tovah Feldshuh.

Organizers said arrangements were being made to determine which performers would or would not be able to attend on Dec. 18, the new date for the concert.

The new date is one day before the first night of Chanukah, and the new concert is being touted as a celebration of the holiday.

Tickets already sold for the event will be honored in December. Ticket holders also can request a refund, either through Ticketmaster or the Israel Forever Foundation, which is sponsoring the event.

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