Two dozen colorfully dressed fourth- and fifth-graders from the Pressman Academy, waving small Israeli flags, welcomed Israel’s President Moshe Katsav and his wife Gila with Hebrew songs as they arrived Monday evening at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
An hour later, in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom, more than 400 dinner guests stood in silence as 20 candles were lit in memory of the young victims of last Friday’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
The alternating moods of Jewish pride and mourning marked the evening, co-hosted by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel.
In the first public event of his three-day visit, Katsav called on American Jews to support Israel, not just with checks but by visiting and living in the Jewish state.
He exhorted his listeners that “we are one family; we have the same heritage and the same history.”
Katsav put the blame for the Tel Aviv killings and other terrorist attacks during the past eight months on Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority.
“Arafat has given so many promises and commitments, and he has never fulfilled them,” Katsav said, “but now it’s the end of the game for him. He can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time.”
Katsav got his political start as the 24-year-old mayor of the development town of Kiryat Malachi, which translates as Town of Angels. It was named in honor of the Los Angeles Jewish community, which helped to establish and develop its struggling Israeli namesake.
Katsav’s schedule also included a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and a meeting with former First Lady Nancy Reagan on Tuesday, as well as meetings with the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times, the Spanish-language La Opinion and The Journal.
In a meeting with the president in his hotel suite, The Journal told Katsav that major Jewish groups and schools have cancelled planned trips to Israel following last Friday’s the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. “It’s a mistake,” Katsav shot back. Israel is safe, he stressed, and visits are important. “There is no justification for cancellations. After all, if they want to express solidarity, they can do so by visiting us.”
Much of the president’s cross-country itinerary has been taken up with meetings with the American media.
Katsav gets official reactions to Israel policy from CNN, but these face-to-face meetings have given him a new understanding of how Israel is perceived. “I felt a warm attitude, with sympathy, and a wanting to know more details,” he said. “It surprised me. My impression was that the Palestinians are more powerful among the international media, but it is not so.”
On Wednesday, the president’s last day in town, he attended a morning reception at Mayor Richard Riordan’s residence, during which the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue was designated as the Israel-Los Angeles Friendship Plaza.
At noon, he gave an address before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, and that evening, he was honored at a reception at the Iranian American Jewish Center in West Hollywood, followed by a dinner at Sinai Temple.
The president’s visit was of special importance to the local Iranian Jewish community, since Katsav was born in Iran, moving to Israel with his family in 1951 as a 6-year-old boy.