JERUSALEM (JTA) – What happens when you invite almost the entire Israeli Cabinet over for dinner?
Second desserts and talk past President Bush’s bedtime.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s farewell dinner for Bush on Thursday ran until nearly 10 p.m.. – past the president’s usual 9 p.m. lights out.
Bush spent three days in Israel and the Palestinian-populated territories this week spurring renewed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
The president wrapped up things with a lively dinnertime discussion that went on for more than an hour past Bush’s scheduled 8:30 p.m. return to the King David Hotel a block away. Wait staff had to bring out second desserts.
The reason for the late dinner, Israeli officials said, was that everyone wanted to have their say, particularly leaders of Israeli political parties that fear concessions to the Palestinians.
One dinner guest was Minister of Pensions Rafi Eitan, the former spymaster who ran Jonathan Pollard in the 1980s and now leads the Pensioner’s Party.
Pollard, serving a life sentence for spying on the United States for Israel, expressed outrage earlier this week that his old boss – who is banned from entering the United States – was able to wine and dine with the U.S. president.
There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. And when the night was over, a White House staffer toted a large framed photograph of Bush and Olmert into the King David Hotel – a gift, apparently, from the prime minister.
You get what you pay for – and then some.
The United States has steered millions of dollars in recent years to the Palestinian Authority to train its security forces, who were routed from the Gaza Strip last summer by Hamas terrorists, and to rebuild the Mukata compound, the P.A. headquarters in Ramallah leveled by Israel when it housed Yasser Arafat during the second intifada.
The U.S. investment appears to be paying off. The camouflage-clad P.A. troops who greeted Bush when he arrived Thursday at the Mukata were disciplined, and the area was utterly quiet and cleared of protesters.
Bush reviewed an honor guard beneath rows of U.S. and Palestinian flags fluttering in the wintry wind.
The rebuilt complex had some fixing-up left – parts were unpaved and muddy – but white walls, vaunted ceilings and high windows filled the interiors with light even on a foggy morning.
The podium in the press room, however, might have been slightly disconcerting for Bush. It was flanked by two fresh portraits: one of current P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Bush has praised as trustworthy, and one of Arafat, whom Bush regarded as anything but.
Hanging off one of the walls was a telling tapestry: a huge depiction of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which both Muslims and Jews claim as a holy site and which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their national birthright.
Olmert admires Bush – loves him, in fact. But Abbas is the one who got to hold his hand.
The Israeli prime minister begged new synonyms for “effusive” in his paeans to Bush for his friendship toward Israel.
“Your solidarity with the people of Israel has won you the love and admiration of all the citizens of Israel, and we all feel privileged to have you here with us,” Olmert said just before lunch Wednesday.
“Thank God I can conduct political negotiations with George Bush at my side as one of my partners.” Olmert said before supper Wednesday.
Abbas, the P.A. president, was similarly adoring the next day, when Bush visited his headquarters in Ramallah.
“I welcome you in Ramallah, as well as in Bethlehem, on the land of Palestine, that welcomes you today as a great guest,” he said.
After the president spoke, Abbas was asked if he liked what he heard. He couldn’t be emphatic enough: “We are fully satisfied with the outcome that we reached through this visit of Mr. President George Bush.”
As Bush ticked off a laundry list of Palestinian complaints about Israel – settlement expansion, interference in building a police force, roadblocks – Abbas gazed at him and smiled.
After the press conference ended, Abbas grabbed Bush’s hand and walked him off the stage.
A little fog brought a lot of clarity for Bush.
Bush was to have flown by helicopter to Ramallah from Jerusalem on Thursday to meet with Abbas.
Foggy conditions, however, made the chopper a no-go. Instead, Bush was driven to the West Bank city.
At a news conference, a Palestinian reporter asked Bush if he was more sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians now that he had seen the checkpoints and roadblocks pocking the land.
“I can understand why the Palestinians are frustrated driving through checkpoints,” Bush replied. “I can also understand that until confidence is gained on both sides why the Israelis would want there to be a sense of security. In other words, they don’t want a state on their border from which attacks would be launched. I can understand that. Any reasonable person can understand that. Why would you work to have a state on your border if you weren’t confident they’d be a partner in peace?”
Then Bush flashed his well-known, self-deprecating wit: “You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped,” he said, prompting laughter from the journalists. “But I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person.”
Bush got a taste of Palestinian protests a little later, on his way to Bethlehem in sunnier weather, after the fog had lifted. Signs along the route read: “Freedom for Palestine” and “Stop Giving Aid to Occupation and Death to Our Children.”
Visiting Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Bush proved himself not merely a man of Christian principle but of Christian compassion as well.
Arriving at the church Thursday, Bush was greeted by an array of Holy Land Christian leaders standing along the narrow stairs that ascend to the altar.
“Nice to meet you,” he said to one of the clerics, according to a pool report. “Don’t fall off there. I’d feel terrible if you fell.”
Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, descended, candles lit, into the grotto believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Josh Bolten, Bush’s Jewish chief of staff, joined them but abjured the candlelighting.