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Amid Israel 60 Gala in Jerusalem, Ashkelon Suffers Rocket Strike

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A crush of world leaders and their security details mixed with Buddhist monks, rabbis, novelists and Internet entrepreneurs at Israel’s splashy, high-profile 60th anniversary celebration this week.

The festivities at the “Facing Tomorrow” conference in Jerusalem stood in stark contrast to the destruction Wednesday in Ashkelon, where two people were wounded seriously in a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on the city of 120,000.

The preponderance of so many dignitaries and top thinkers — Jewish and non-Jewish — under one roof in Jerusalem was part of Israeli President Shimon Peres’ vision for his conference. It was meant to bring together people of influence and know-how for serious discussion and reflection about how best to approach the world’s most pressing problems, particularly those of the Jewish world and Israel.

It’s about “generating new ideas at a time when the world faces the paradoxes of both opportunity and profound threats,” said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East envoy and the founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, the think tank that organized the conference.

“People from all walks of life have come here and enriched our curiosity and knowledge,” Peres said in an address to the conference.

The celebration in Jerusalem included a showy tribute to the U.S.-Israel relationship featuring songs, effusive speeches and standing ovations for guest of honor President Bush. While diplomats and Jewish leaders toasted each other in the capitol, ambulances in Ashkelon congregated outside the destruction at a mall struck by a Palestinian-fired rocket.

The strike was a harsh reminder that the ongoing attacks from Hamas-led Gaza on southern Israeli communities are growing ever wider, bringing more Israelis within the range of the terrorists’ rockets.

“Millions of light years separated yesterday between the ‘Facing Tomorrow’ conference in Jerusalem and the events of ‘today’ in Ashkelon,” Ben Caspit wrote Thursday in the Israel daily Ma’ariv.

“Here, world and Israeli leaders gather in dark suits, fancy evening dresses and burly security guards,” he wrote. “In the audience they smile at the most hated American president and the most suspect Israeli prime minister, as if there were no tomorrow. Everyone talks about hope, peace and the future. Whereas an hour and a half’s drive away, injured people are transported from a mall in the center of town to the hospital.

“‘Tomorrow’ is the great, real love of Shimon Peres. He is already there. The tragedy is that we are still stuck here, in today.”

Such cynicism was absent from the conference, where participants said the forum served as a good place for lively, important debate on some of the most pressing issues facing the world, including the potential threat of a nuclear Iran. Again and again, speakers said Iran’s nuclear drive should be approached as a global problem, not just a problem for Israel.

A nuclear Iran would “tip the balance of the entire region towards extremism,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a Cabinet member in the Clinton administration and a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Peres’ gala was preceded by a pre-conference summit of 120 top minds of the Jewish world. Academics, former statesmen and others mapped out coherent strategies to challenges such as confronting radical Islam and keeping young Jews in the fold.

The summit issued several recommendations, including the creation of a Jewish youth service corps modeled after the Peace Corps, a Jewish leadership academy in Jerusalem and the establishment of a secretariat to implement key issues of Jewish communal consensus.

The Peres conference attempted to showcase the best of Israel, with Israeli technology companies on display boasting inventions from algae-produced bio-fuel to insulin in a pill.

Israel’s accomplishments in science and technology are among Peres’ favorite topics. He says this is how Israel can contribute to the world.

Peres, trailed by TV cameras, moved through the conference crowd shaking hands. As Israel’s elder statesman, he brought an impressive VIP list to the conference, including Bush and several other world leaders, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Google founder Sergey Brin.

Bush offered a rousing address Wednesday evening highlighting Israel’s special relationship with America.

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