Netanyahu finds lukewarm reception at U.S. confab

At the same time, the premier softened his rhetoric toward the Palestinians, hinting at a possible acceptance of a limited Palestinian state.

"I want to state at the outset as emphatically as I can: No one, nobody, can deprive a Jew of his Jewishness," Netanyahu said.

"The membership in our faith and people is not the exclusive domain of anyone."

Netanyahu encouraged the more than 3,500 delegates to support the efforts of a commission trying to find a solution in the religious pluralism debate.

That committee, headed by Israeli Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, almost broke down last month when Reform and Conservative Jews threatened to press their cases in court and the Orthodox political parties vowed to revive legislation to codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel and local religious councils.

All sides stepped back from the brink, extending the deadline of the committee until Jan. 31. That extension averted an explosion of the issue at the gathering — one of the largest annual Jewish gatherings — here this week.

Underscoring the urgency of the issue, Dr. Conrad Giles, president of CJF, said preserving Jewish unity "has occupied the central-most focus of our activities in the past year."

While some walked away convinced Netanyahu was doing the best he could given political pressures, others thought his remarks didn't break new ground on the issue that has caused a rift between Israel and many U.S. Jews.

"He knew what his mission was," said Sidney Miller, a federation board member from Dayton, Ohio.

"He said all the right words, but I don't know if he can deliver."

Others were dismayed by the premier's remarks.

"The issue of pluralism is being talked about, but it's not being addressed," said Kathy Williams of San Francisco.

"I walked away feeling that I listened to a lot of hot air."

Others balked at the premier's claim that American Jewry does not understand the conversion controversy.

In his speech, Netanyahu had said that while he understood a feeling of "alienation," he believes that 99 percent of North American Jews do not know that the problem is confined to Israel and that the status of non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel are not at risk.

In what appeared to be a veiled criticism of the American Reform and Conservative movements, Netanyahu said, "Let us stop looking at each other as enemies. Let those who would divide us go elsewhere."

Reacting to Netanyahu's speech, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform movement's Zionists of America, said:

"It was disappointing. It was nothing but slogans."

While there were no fireworks at the event, a protest by five Jewish leaders sparked attention when they urged delegates to give Netanyahu a cool reception.