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Olmert says needs in North exaggerated

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the problems in war-struck northern Israel were exaggerated. He described American charitable donations to help the region as important, but stopped short of calling them necessary.

Olmert made his comments Wednesday to a delegation of American journalists who had come to Israel on a mission organized by the United Jewish Communities to showcase how $360 million raised from donors across the world was being used to aid the North’s recovery after last summer’s war with Hezbollah.

Federation leaders have hailed the effort, dubbed the Israel Emergency Campaign, as vital to helping Israel’s immediate and long-term recovery from the conflict, and as evidence of the UJC’s relevance and effectiveness. At the same time, Olmert’s government has faced criticism over its perceived failures in responding to the needs in the North.

Olmert, whose office stipulated that he could be paraphrased but not quoted directly from the meeting, told the visiting journalists that the situation in the North is not dire. The economy is booming, he said.

Asked if the American money given to Israel was “necessary,” he would say only that it is important and significant. Olmert went on to say that Israel is happy to receive money and that it is helpful, but necessity depends on the attitude of the giver and receiver. Americans had to give money and Israel wanted to receive it, he said.

In response, UJC officials lauded the performance of the organization and its partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and emphasized that the Israeli government has been involved every step of the way.

Howard Rieger, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, said he was proud of the impact the funds have made on the region.

He said the funds have provided loans for business that would have failed, contributed to educational programs and addressed the psychological needs of residents affected by the trauma.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a hint” from anyone involved in the process “that the direction wasn’t a relevant direction,” said Rieger, who spoke to JTA from Florida and was not at the Wednesday meeting with the prime minister. “The feedback on the ground has been terrific.”

Nachman Shai, UJC’s senior vice president and director general of its Israel branch, said after Olmert’s briefing with journalists, which he attended, that the projects funded with money from the emergency campaign “meet the needs of the people in the North and South in full coordination with the government of Israel.”

Shai said that a forthcoming independent evaluation of the programs “finds that the vast, vast majority should be funded for another year.”

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