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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a group of American Jewish journalists and officials on Wednesday that the problems in war-struck northern Israel are exaggerated. He described American charitable donations to help the region as important, but stopped short of calling them necessary.
The journalists said later they were surprised by the prime minister's comments, since their group had come to Israel specifically 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 against Hizbullah.
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 was not dire. The economy was booming, he said.
Asked if the American money given to Israel was "necessary," he would only say it was important and significant. Olmert went on to say that Israel was happy to receive money and that it was helpful, but necessity depends on the attitude of the giver and receiver. Americans want 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.
"UJC is extremely proud of the work we have done with our partners and the government of Israel both during and after the war," Nachman Shai, UJC's senior vice president and director-general of its Israel branch, said after Olmert's briefing with journalists, which he attended.
Shai said 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."