Netanayu and Kirk Douglas. Photo by Peter Halmagyi
Netanyahu's Day in L.A.
The Israeli prime minister crams in meetings, a pressconference and a gala dinner before shuttling off to London
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrived at Los AngelesInternational Airport at 2 a.m. on Monday, met with business leadersat 8 a.m., and kept going until 11 p.m., when his plane left forLondon and a meeting with King Hussein of Jordan.
Telescoping a planned two-day visit into one day to keep his datewith the Jordanian monarch, Netanyahu displayed unflagging stamina, aquick sense of humor, and considerable deftness in turning asideunpleasant questions from polite but generally undemonstrativeaudiences.
More dramatic than the scheduled events were two overseas phonecalls. In the midst of a morning press conference, Netanyahu excusedhimself for 15 minutes to speak with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarakand to express his sympathy concerning the killing of more than 60tourists in a terrorist attack in Luxor.
The second call, in midafternoon, reached Netanyahu while he wastouring the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It was from Hussein, and duringa seven-minute conversation, the two leaders apparently nailed downdetails of their Tuesday meeting in Hussein's London home. Up to thatpoint, Netanyahu maintained publicly that he was merely landing inLondon for a refueling stop.
As expected, Netanyahu was repeatedly confronted with questionsabout the conversion bill -- now on hold while the Neeman Commissionwrestles with the thorny issue -- and the Orthodox hegemony ofIsrael's religious life.
The issue was brought into sharpest focus by Jewish FederationCouncil of Greater Los Angeles President Herbert Gelfand, whointroduced the prime minister at a joint meeting of some 350Federation, AIPAC and Israel Bonds leaders.
While declaring the community's unswerving support of Israel,Gelfand stated that the proposed conversion bill meant considerablymore than just the codification of the status quo and "may bedestructive of Jewish unity."
To this and similar statements raised following Netanyahu's mainaddress of the day before the World Affairs Council, he responded inone typical instance:
"I have done what no prime minister has done before by creating acommission to bring all streams of Judaism together. This may be themost important question in Jewish history since Napoleon asked FrenchJewry 200 years ago to define its identity. With patience, toleranceand goodwill on all sides, we can solve this problem and set thepattern of Jewish unity for the 21st century."
Netanyahu repeatedly pointed to Iran as the greatest threat facingthe world at the end of the 20th century.
"The world has one year before Iran will have ballistic missilestipped with chemical or biological weapons, that will be aimed firstat Israel, then at Europe, and then at Manhattan," he said. "WhileSaddam Hussein has regional ambitions, Iran's ideology encompassesthe whole world."
Following are comments Netanyahu had on other topics, raisedmainly at the press conference:
* President Clinton's apparent snub in not meeting with Netanyahu,even though both men were within a few miles of each other in LosAngeles on Monday morning: "We will meet at a suitable time, and ameeting has been set for Dec. 8."
* Major dissension within the Likud Party and among governmentministers over cancellation of the party's primaries: "It's no secretthat some people dislike me," said Netanyahu, but when he returns toIsrael, "I'll fix what needs to be fixed."
* Possible Scud attacks on Israel if renewed hostilities betweenIraq and the United States break out: "Israel is prepared and quietlyconfident."
* On Israel's economy: "Israel is rapidly becoming one of theworld's most advanced technological countries; we're becoming thePeople of the Disc. Hold on to your seats, but we're making Israel aplace where you can actually make money."
The visit did not pass without a few complaints and irritations.There was some astonishment that the Netanyahu entourage reserved 100bedrooms at hotels in both Indianapolis and Los Angeles, aconsiderable figure, even including space for 20 Israeli journalistsin the party.
A well-placed source complained that a Peace Now dinner plannedfor Monday evening with producer Arnon Milchan and director SidneyPollack had been canceled under pressure from Netanyahu's associatesso as not to interfere with the gala sponsored by theOrthodox-founded Aish HaTorah College and outreach program, the laststop on the prime minister's visit.
That event was held on the tented tennis court at the home of MervAdelson, one of Hollywood's financial and political power hitters.Some 220 guests attended, of whom the paying portion contributed from$10,000 to $25,000 per couple to provide student scholarships throughthe Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah.
Netanyahu conferred the fund's King David Award on veteran screenactor Kirk Douglas. The guest list included such Hollywood studiochiefs as Lew Wasserman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Frank Biondi and RonMeyer, business leaders Michael and Lowell Milken, and Haim Saban,and California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Brand-name television and movie actors, though not in thesuperstar category some guests might have anticipated, included FranDrescher, Mike Connors, Richard Crenna, Elliott Gould, Suzanne Somersand Florence Henderson.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, met up with one certified mega-starwhen Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, accompaniedIsrael's first couple on the tour of the Wiesenthal Center's Museumof Tolerance.
Rabbi Hier: Diplomatic Middleman
An intriguing sidelight of the unorthodox arrangements underlyingPrime Minister Netanyahu's meeting with King Hussein of Jordan wasrevealed by Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the SimonWiesenthal Center.
While driving to a doctor's appointment last Thursday morning,Hier received a call on his cell phone from Hussein, then inWashington, saying that he was sending his personal aide to LosAngeles on an important mission.
The next morning, the aide, Gen. Ali Shukri, arrived at theWiesenthal Center. He carried a message that the king wanted torestore his country's relationship with Israel at the highest leveland wanted to know if Netanyahu could meet him at his London home onTuesday.
According to Hier, Shukri stressed four points that motivatedHussein: re-establishing intelligence exchanges at the top level, theissue of Palestinian air and seaport facilities, a possiblemoratorium on Hamas terrorist activities, and cementing the personalrelationship between Hussein and Netanyahu.
Hier said that he immediately got in touch with Yoram Ben Ze'ev,the Israel consul general in Los Angeles, who conveyed the invitationdirectly to Netanyahu.
The final details were put into place on Monday, when Husseinphoned Netanyahu while the prime minister was touring the WiesenthalCenter's Museum of Tolerance.
Hier said that he and the king had established a warm personalrelationship when the Jordanian monarch toured the Wiesenthal Centerlast year, and that the king had invited the rabbi to visit him atthe hospital during his recent illness. --Tom Tugend