Between Sessions and Schmoozing, Harsh Warnings About Israel’s Future

From Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, there were so many top Israeli officials at the North American federation system’s annual gathering that one joked they might as well hold the next Cabinet meeting there. The climax of the four-day gathering came Tuesday night as Olmert, who met a day earlier with President Bush in Washington, told some 5,000 delegates: “We cannot tolerate, we will not tolerate, those who challenge Israel’s right to exist while actively seeking to develop the catastrophic weapons to fulfill their goals.”

He added, “We did not choose this responsibility. But the burden is ours and we cannot, we will not, we shall not shy away from confronting this challenge.”

A massive police presence kept some 200 protesters a block away from the Los Angeles Convention Center as Olmert spoke. The group included some Israeli members of the dovish Women in Black group, who joined others in shouting continuously, “Bush, Olmert you can’t hide/We charge you with genocide.”

Olmert, for his part, held out an olive branch to the Palestinian Authority.

“Here and again, I declare I am willing to meet” P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas “immediately, without preconditions, to discuss with him means for creating progress for our two peoples and hope for a better future.”

Olmert added, “We must stop the spiraling conflict, end the fight between us, and bring peace to our battered region.”

Olmert’s address was in keeping with the spirit of the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly, which ended Wednesday. The meeting focused on Israel in the wake of this summer’s war against Hezbollah and in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat.

Earlier major addresses were given by Livni and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The high-profile Israeli presence included six Cabinet ministers and a bevy of high-powered Israeli business leaders.

Livni said one of her top priorities was to close the gap between Israel’s militant image abroad and the reality of a vibrant, multi-faceted nation, and pledged to invest “a lot of time and money” in a new “Brand Israel” campaign. The project was explored in more depth at a packed session.

The stakes in the image campaign are high, and what’s needed is nothing less than a paradigm shift, said Ido Aharoni, Livni’s senior adviser and spokesman.

During a news conference for the North American Jewish press, Livni acknowledged a sense of frustration among Israelis that the monthlong war against Hezbollah didn’t meet expectations for a quick military campaign that would wipe out the terrorist group.

“We realize that there are some things that cannot be solved by military means,” she said, but noted that a framework had been established for peace on the Lebanese-Israeli border, if the international community enforces an embargo on weapons to Hezbollah.

To close her G.A. address on a cheerful note, Livni announced that she would say something her audience might never expect to hear from an Israeli.

“Thank you, thank you very much,” she beamed — for raising $330 million in an emergency drive for Israel during and after the Lebanon fighting.

Netanyahu, the opposition leader in the Knesset, drew a harsh picture of the situation confronting Israel and the West in an intense speech that hit some of the same notes as Olmert’s, but in a more bellicose tone.

Netanyahu warned that Iran is aiming to develop 25 nuclear weapons a year, ultimately with a range that can reach the East Coast of the United States.

“It’s 1938 — and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to get atomic weapons,” Netanyahu repeated again and again. “When someone tells you he is going to exterminate you, believe him and stop him.”

The former prime minister said he had been trying for a decade to warn world leaders that Iran represented the greatest threat — not just to Israel but also to Europe and America — “but nobody seems to care very strongly.”

While Hitler started a war and then tried to develop an atomic bomb, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is building nuclear weapons first and then will start a war, Netanyahu warned. Unlike 1938 and its aftermath, however, this time the Jewish people will not be the sacrificial lamb, Netanyahu declared to prolonged applause.

Amid the hugs and mutual compliments between Israeli officials and American delegates, there was, inevitably, at least one incident to enliven lunch-break conversation.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, had observed that “One day the penny will drop for American Jews and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the United States due to assimilation and intermarriage.”

Bielski stood by his statement, though he clarified that “We came here to say thanks to the Diaspora… but we have to deepen involvement with Israel.”

The reaction was predictable. G.A. delegate Misha Galpern told the Post, “We didn’t disappear for 2,000 years, and I don’t see any reason for us to disappear now.”

NEXT STORY