JERUSALEM — A 15-month festival celebrating the 3,000th anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem began with a bang Monday, as government officials and the Israeli public paid tribute to their capital.
Determined to make this a memorable celebration, Israeli officials shrugged off charges recently lodged by the European Union and the Palestinian Authority that the event focuses on Jewish contributions to the city at the expense of other religions.
The Jerusalem 3000 celebration, originally conceived strictly as a vehicle to attract tourists, has increasingly taken on political overtones as the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over the status of Jerusalem escalates.
It was no surprise that Palestinian leaders and European ambassadors would not be in attendance, but the absence of U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk created a stir.
American Jewish leaders, who had helped organize Jerusalem 3000, were particularly upset by the absence of Indyk, the first Jewish U.S. envoy to Israel.
"There was concern that a decision had been taken not to participate," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations who serves as American executive vice chairman of Jerusalem 3000.
"Everyone came up to us and asked, `Where is your ambassador?'"
Hoenlein said that immediately after the ceremony, he telephoned Indyk for an explanation.
"I spoke to Martin, and he assured me that there is no boycott and that he plans to participate in future Jerusalem 3000 events," Hoenlein said.
"Nonetheless, we were disappointed that he didn't participate, if only to avoid any misunderstanding and the feelings engendered by his absence."
Hoenlein acknowleged that Indyk "did have other functions to participate in" the same night. Indyk was attending a Labor Day barbecue and a benefit for an Israeli women's shelter. A senior cultural affairs official attended the Jerusalem 3000 events in his place.
Israeli officials invited 70 ambassadors to Monday night's ceremony, but only 17 attended.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was unhappy that the ceremony had been "abandoned" by diplomats, including Indyk, said spokeswoman Aliza Goren.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said Indyk's decision not to attend the opening ceremony proved that "Jerusalem is like an open wound in the relations between us and the United States."
Refusing to allow any controversy to diminish the Jerusalem 3000 extravaganza, Rabin, Olmert and Tourism Minister Uzi Baram kicked off the festival at the City of David, an archeological site outside the Old City where King David is believed to have first settled Jerusalem.
"We are opening our celebrations here, in the original City of David, to tell ourselves, and the entire world, that our roots in this land predate Zionism, predate the diaspora and even predate the Holy Temples," Olmert said.
Later, more than a thousand Knesset members, clergy and invited guests, many of whom had flown in for the event, attended an outdoor ceremony at the Knesset.
In his Knesset address, Olmert reiterated the stance that Jerusalem must stay united under Israeli rule.
He then surprised many by delivering a lengthy tribute to former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. It is no secret that the past and current mayor do not get along.
In his address, Rabin stressed the need for goodwill on all sides and reiterated his stand on the future status of Jerusalem:
"Three thousand years of Jerusalem are for us, now and forever, a message for tolerance between religions, of love between peoples, of understanding between nations, of the penetrating awareness that there is no State of Israel without Jerusalem, and no peace without Jerusalem united — the City of Peace," Rabin said.
"United Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel. United Jerusalem is ours. Jerusalem forever."
After Rabin's address, an array of fireworks and laser lights, choreographed to music, lit up the night sky.
While those at the Knesset watched from the balcony, tens of thousands of families clogged the streets nearby to catch the display.
As upbeat as the evening was, the question of Jerusalem's future preoccupied many in the crowd.
"Those were amazing fireworks," said a teenager named Tzvi, "but these festivities will be meaningless if the city is divided."
Others, such as a young mother named Leah, struck a more upbeat note.
"If anyone had doubts that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state of Israel, Jerusalem 3000 should set them straight."