WASHINGTON, May 18 (JTA) — President Bush knew what he was doing when he took his case for staying the course in Iraq to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. No audience appreciates the president more for sticking to his guns in the Middle East than the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Bush received 23 standing ovations Tuesday in his speech to AIPAC, in which he defended his Iraq policy and reiterated his administration’s strong support of Israel. That support won him thunderous ovations throughout the speech, with a smattering of attendees holding up four fingers and shouting, “Four more years!” While AIPAC’s membership is traditionally Democratic, many AIPAC voters have said they will back Bush in November because of his stance on Israel. Bush spent much of his speech defending an Iraq policy buffeted by casualties and scandal. He said he remained committed to defeating insurgents in Iraq and transferring power there to a U.S.-friendly government. “We will not be intimidated by thugs and assassins,” Bush said. “We will win this essential, important victory in the war on terror.” Bush has faced much criticism for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the failure there to find weapons of mass destruction, which he cited as the primary justification for war, and the violence that has continued to plague Iraq since the end of large-scale hostilities last year. Among many supporters of Israel, however, the war is seen largely as a positive, with the ouster of Saddam Hussein considered a boon to Israel’s security. Bush justified the military action in front of the friendly audience. “Freedom-loving people did not seek this conflict,” he said. “It has come to us by the choices of violent men, hateful men.” Bush linked the Iraq invasion with the war on terrorism and stability in the Middle East, suggesting that U.S. resolve in Iraq could effect change in Syria and Iran. “This advance of freedom will bring greater security to America and to the world,” he said. “These are historic times. It’s a historic opportunity.” He sounded a similar message when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush alluded to the escalating violence in the Gaza Strip, where attacks claimed the lives of 13 Israeli soldiers last week and hundreds of Palestinians have been made homeless by Israeli house demolitions. “The unfolding violence in the Gaza Strip is troubling and underscores the need for all parties to seize every opportunity for peace,” he said. Bush reiterated his view that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s promised withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was a “bold” opportunity for progress, and called on all parties to renounce violence, fight terrorism and embrace democracy. “Our vision is a Middle East where borders are crossed for purposes of trade and commerce, not crossed for the purposes of murder and war,” Bush said. “This vision is within our grasp if we have the faith and the courage and the resolve to achieve it.” He also committed to working with Europe to fight international anti-Semitism and praised AIPAC members for their contribution to the war against terrorism. “In a dangerous new century, your work is more vital than ever,” he said. “I thank you for doing your part in the cause of freedom.” The adulation was overwhelming for a chief executive whom many in the room did not vote for three years ago. Early in his remarks, when Bush could not complete a sentence above the crowd’s roar, he smiled and said, “I’m just getting warmed up.” Even before Bush entered the room, attendees pumped their hands in applause. Trying to introduce Bush, Amy Friedkin, AIPAC’s outgoing president, was halted after almost every sentence by ovations. Friedkin said Bush had “walked the walk” by standing up for Israel, working to protect it from terrorism and isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat when others had embraced him. Bush’s presence at the event was noteworthy: In the past, the administration has been careful not to aggravate Arab perceptions of pro-Israel clout in Washington, and this was only Bush’s second speech to a Jewish audience since taking office in January 2001. But the administration and Bush’s re-election campaign have emphasized his record on Israel in recent months, hoping to galvanize Jewish support in several key states with large Jewish populations, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona. Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to South Palm Beach, Fla. last Friday and sent a very similar message to the local Jewish federation there, with American and Israeli flags as his backdrop as well. Bush’s speech received rave reviews from AIPAC members, many of whom said he touched on all the issues of concern to them. “There are people in this audience who plan to vote for him and people who don’t,” said Adam Goldfarb of New York City. “But the spirit of AIPAC is to welcome leaders of both sides of the aisle who support Israel.” Few seemed to mind that Bush used the forum to justify his Iraq policy. “I think this audience, more than most, is more likely to be supportive of the war in Iraq,” said Moe Freedman of Oak Park, Mich.