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For One Day, Demonstrators Bring Mideast Passion to Quiet Texas Town

Pro- and anti-Israel protesters brought a crowded corner of the Middle East home to Crawford, Texas, for a day. More than 2,000 demonstrators gathered in the central Texas town Monday as President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met down a dirt road at Bush’s ranch to discuss Israel’s plans to pull out from 25 settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer. That was far more than Crawford’s resident population of 705.

Both sides were protesting the visit, but the overwhelming majority were Baptists who believe the removal of settlers violates biblical precepts.

The Baptists, who brought in leaders of Israel’s settler movement to speak, wore orange T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the slogan “Israel belongs to the Jews.”

Gadi Eshel, a leader of a pro-settler faction in Sharon’s Likud Party, said the planned evacuation was a “complete blasphemy,” earning a resounding “Amen!” from members of the crowd, many of whom were waving Israeli flags.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America — the settlers’ principal U.S. backer — spoke to the protesters by phone.

“We will resolve this in a way that God wants it solved, not the way Ariel Sharon wants it solved,” he said.

If there were any doubts that the spectacle was out of place in Texas, one sign put that to rest: “Don’t mess with the original Lone Star State,” it read, a play on Texas’ nickname and the Star of David on the Israeli flag.

Down the road, a dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrators raised a Palestinian flag at the Peace House, established by dovish groups to press various anti-war causes shortly after Bush’s 2000 election.

Not that the locals seem to mind the intrusion — or even to notice it. While dozens of reporters crowded into the front part of Crawford Middle School, the kids had an “outside” day, spending much of it on the track in back of the school — not an uncommon occurrence, considering the frequency of world leaders’ visits to Crawford.

Commercial enterprises naturally enjoy the attention. “Fly Waco,” a billboard outside the nearest commercial airport reads. “Presidents, prime ministers and princes do.”

This wasn’t the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to a Texas ranch: Levi Eshkol and President Lyndon Johnson forged the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership at LBJ’s ranch in January 1968. That agreement paved the way for massive military aid to Israel, which proved crucial in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The friendship between Eshkol and Johnson was so close that Sharon corrected himself when he summed up his own relationship with Bush in a meeting Monday with Israeli reporters.

“These are the closest relations ever — well, the closest since Eshkol-Johnson,” he said.

That match seemed an attraction of opposites: The large, loud, rough-hewn Johnson and the mild, small Eshkol, the product of an Eastern European religious education.

In the current case, the differences are not so broad. Sharon, who owns the largest private ranch in Israel, is a hands-on farmer, and made his entry into politics in the 1970s on the basis of a campaign for farmers’ rights, not his storied military career.

During the Crawford visit, Sharon invited Bush on a reciprocal visit to his Negev ranch, and Bush accepted.

“I know you love the land,” Bush said at their joint press appearance. “The prime minister was telling me he’s really a farmer at heart, and I look forward to sharing with my friend what life is like here in central Texas.”

Sharon said later that an all-terrain-vehicle tour of Bush’s ranch was a highlight of the trip.

“We saw beautiful things,” he said. “A river, a natural forest.”

Sharon, who breeds cattle, also examined Bush’s herd of Black Angus. There was no word, however, on whether the kosher pecan-smoked beef tenderloin that was served for lunch was of local provenance.

There’s not a lot in Waco — known as the home of Baylor University and museums celebrating the local origins of Dr. Pepper and the Texas Rangers — to make an Israeli feel at home.

Not much but a few teasing signs: A sign at a local mall saying “Jerusalem Angel Country” does not seem attached to any existing store. A deli around the corner is called Schmaltz. Its featured sandwich — ham and cheese — belies any Jewish connection, however.

There is a Jewish community of about 400 people in town, and two synagogues, Reform and Conservative.

About 40 local Jews decked out in blue and white, waving Israeli flags and balloons, turned out Sunday to greet the Israeli motorcade when Sharon arrived at the Waco Hilton. A number of Sharon’s senior aides got out of their cars to thank the delegation.

Rabbi Gordon Fuller of Congregation Agudath Jacob, the Conservative shul, said the heavily Christian town — Baylor is the largest Baptist university in the world, and a church seems to dot every corner — prods local Jews to take pride in their own identity.

“Kids here know who they are,” he said.

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