As White House Menorah is Lit, Bush Speaks of His Resolve Against Terror

It may be an annual event, but the White House Chanukah celebration remains a highlight for leaders of the American Jewish community.

“It’s not just a party but a very powerful, symbolic event,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who attended Wednesday night’s bash with President Bush. “I kept pinching myself.”

Bush celebrated the Jewish festival of lights with a series of events Wednesday, including a meeting with Jewish political leaders and rabbis, a candle-lighting with children of Jewish White House staffers and a party for Jewish communal leaders.

“Today, the spirit of those early patriots” — a reference to the Maccabees — “lives in the lives of the State of Israel and throughout the Jewish community, and among all brave people who fight violence and terror,” Bush said, before two girls lit the menorah at the White House residence. “We pray that this season of light will also be a season of peace for the Jewish people.”

The president used a menorah from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, believed to be the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the United States.

Those at the meeting with Bush — including more than a dozen rabbis from across the ideological spectrum — said he spoke strongly of his determination to end the threat of terrorism against the United States and Israel, and his commitment to ensure that Iraq doesn’t threaten international peace.

Bush talked at length about religious persecution around the world and the need for religious tolerance and freedom, participants said. He also expressed his appreciation for the support and prayers he has received from the American Jewish community.

For the Jewish groups, “It was an opportunity for us to express our gratitude for his support of Israel and his understanding of Israel and Jewishness and Judaism,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

The president “came across as extremely sincere, extremely knowledgeable about the Jewish community and its interests,” Weinreb said.

The discussion did not delve into details of domestic or Mideast policy, and participants said Bush did not face any tough questions.

However, some Jewish leaders also met Wednesday with Bush administration officials, including the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, and Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

The message from those meetings, attendees said, was that the United States will not deviate from Bush’s June 24 speech, in which he called for new Palestinian leadership and, possibly, a Palestinian state within three years.

“June 24 remains the key reference point,” Harris said. “That was very gratifying to hear.”

Jewish leaders had been worried that Bush’s June vision was being compromised as the United States and its diplomatic partners prepare a “road map” toward Middle East peace that does not explicitly call for the removal of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

It also places pressure on Israel to end settlement development and withdraw its army to positions held before the Palestinian intifada began in Sept. 2000. Critics contend that Israel should withdraw only after Palestinian violence has ceased.

Harris said he felt senior administration officials are weighing the consequences of announcing the plan’s details during Israel’s election campaign. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked that the announcement, scheduled for later this month, be postponed until after the Jan. 28 voting.

Harris also said he was happy the administration is paying attention to the possible reverberations of an attack on Iraq, and is formulating strategies for post-regime change there.

Republicans have been courting the Jewish community, hoping to make inroads with what traditionally has been a strongly Democratic bloc.

However, participants at Wednesday’s festivities said they didn’t feel they were being wooed. Rather, they said, the event seemed to be a recognition of areas where the Jewish and Republican agendas converge.

Bush “was taking advantage of the timing of these religious holidays to talk about common values and common goals,” one participant said.

On Thursday, Bush celebrated the Eid El Fitr holiday, marking the last day of Ramadan, with an event at the Islamic Center in Washington.

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