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Explanations Differ for Gala Snafu: Was It Sharon, or Poor Ticket Sales?

A gala concert for Israel’s 55th birthday has been postponed, just one week before it was to take place — and no one seems to agree why.

Organizers maintain that the concert was delayed from May 19 until December because of a request from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office, not because of poor ticket sales.

But officials in the Israeli Embassy in Washington say they are not aware of any request from Jerusalem or from Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, to cancel the program.

Organizers say the event at Washington’s MCI Center, which had been in the works for months, was postponed Tuesday because of the sensitive nature of Sharon’s meeting the following day with President Bush.

“Organizers were asked by the ambassador 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.”

But other sources familiar with the situation say the concert was cancelled because of low ticket sales.

“The embassy may have told them not to do it because it would have been embarrassing,” one source familiar with the discussions said. “They couldn’t have cancelled the event without the embassy approving.”

Organizers refused to comment Wednesday, and have repeatedly refused to release information on ticket sales.

“I’m not going to deny or admit to what anyone else said,” said Jeanne Ellinport, executive director of the Israel Forever Foundation, which is sponsoring the event.

Many local Jewish leaders are skeptical of the organizers’ explanation, noting that many people in Washington had said they weren’t planning to attend.

“There had been concern for weeks,” one source said. “This thing was just poorly organized from the get-go, and it was a shame.”

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 even Sharon would attend: It would look bad if he skipped the event while he was in town, but his comments at the event also could have been blown out of proportion, given his meeting at the White House the following day.

But many believe Sharon scheduled his visit to Washington — and his meeting with Bush — precisely so he could attend the concert.

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 May 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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