JERUSALEM (JTA) – 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 were being used to aid the North’s recovery after last summer’s war with Hezbollah. His office stipulated that Olmert could be paraphrased but not directly quoted.
The prime minister, whose government has faced criticism over its perceived failures in responding to the needs in the North, told the visiting journalists that the situation in the area 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.
Some previous prime ministers also have balked at portraying Israel as a needy country. Olmert did not appear to be criticizing American Jewish organizations as his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, did in 2003 when he slammed them over fund-raising efforts that highlighted hunger in Israel.
But Olmert’s comments Wednesday came in the middle of efforts to highlight the success of the Israel Emergency Campaign, which federation leaders have hailed as vital to helping Israel’s immediate and long-term recovery from the conflict, and as evidence of the UJC’s relevance and effectiveness.
His remarks Wednesday struck a different tone from comments he made when UJC launched its emergency campaign last summer in the midst of the war. At that time Olmert said he was relying on American Jewry to help “rehabilitate our cities.”
In response to Olmert’s comments this week, UJC officials lauded the performance of the organization and its partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Howard Rieger, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, said he was proud of the impact the funds have made on the region. According to Rieger, the funds have provided loans for businesses 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.”
The process for identifying the needs and distributing money has been “as collaborative and interactive a process as I’ve ever seen,” Rieger said, noting that UJC’s partner agencies, Israel’s homefront command and the Prime Minister’s Office were all involved in the decision-making process.
Rieger said that after hearing about Olmert’s remarks, his only response was “to be introspective and ask if what we’ve done has been meaningful and had an impact.” The answer, he said, was yes.
Nachman Shai, UJC’s senior vice president and director general of its Israel branch, said after attending Olmert’s meeting with journalists 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.”
The emergency campaign, spearheaded by UJC and its companion network of local Jewish federations, raised $314.7 million from American donors and about $45 million from donors in other countries.
About $90 million was spent during and immediately after the conflict for emergency purposes. Since then, the UJC and its service arms have allocated some $232 million, with much of the money going to help rebuild the North, boost the area’s economy, aid its education system and provide ongoing treatment for trauma victims.
At the start of the emergency campaign last summer, as Israel was fighting Hezbollah and Katyusha rockets rained down on Israel’s northern cities, Olmert said in a video address to UJC supporters that Israel would “rely on you as well to help share with us some of the burdens of this war.”
“A lot needs to be done in the coming weeks and months. At the end of the fire, we will have to rehabilitate our cities, we will have to rebuild thousands of houses and properties that were destroyed,” he said.
“We keep on and we know that the Jewish people, with your love for Israel, with your partnership, you will help build it the way it has to be.”
JTA editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report from New York.