JERUSALEM, (JTA) – There seems to be a lot of love in Israel for President Bush.
In the twilight of his presidency, under heavy criticism at home and in most of the world, Bush seemed visibly moved as Israeli leaders heaped praise on him in speech after speech during his visit here this week for Israel’s 60th anniversary. At one point he seemed to struggle to hold back tears.
During his Knesset address Thursday, the U.S. leader earned thunderous applause and a standing ovation when he assured Israel that America has its back. At home, however, the Barack Obama campaign accused Bush of using his speech to launch a “false political attack.”
“Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away,” Bush said. “This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace, and America utterly rejects it.
“Israel’s population may be just over 7 million, but when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong because America stands with you.”
But what captured U.S. headlines were his remarks on appeasing extremists.
“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’
“We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Obama has said that he would meet with the leaders of pariah states such as Syria and Iran if the conditions were right, but that he would not sit down with terrorist groups such as Hamas.
On Thursday, the Obama campaign interpreted Bush’s remarks as a deliberate jab at the Democratic presidential contender, whom Republicans have characterized as willing to talk to terrorists.
In Israel, however, Bush heard only praise, particularly from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who himself is suffering withering domestic criticism amid a corruption investigation into possible campaign financing scandal. Olmert accompanied Bush on a helicopter trip to the top of Masada.
“I can tell all of you,” Olmert said, addressing an audience at Israeli President Shimon Peres’ lavish “Facing Tomorrow” conference Wednesday, “that President George Bush is a great leader, is a great friend, is a source of inspiration, and we are very proud that we can celebrate the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel with you and your wife here in our capital, Jerusalem.”
Olmert received roaring applause and cheers from the crowd when he concluded his speech, then stepped down from the stage, shook Bush’s hand and hugged him. Apparently feeling one hug was not enough, the prime minister hugged him again, even tighter.
Sitting next to Bush and Olmert was U.S. billionaire and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who foot half the $6 million bill for Peres’ conference. Adelson was among those interviewed by Israeli police in the investigation of whether Olmert took money illegally from American Jewish supporters while he was mayor of Jerusalem and later the minister of industry, trade and labor.
Adelson called Bush “the most supportive United States president in Israel’s 60-year existence.”
As part of the celebratory homage to U.S.-Israel ties, a video tribute screened Wednesday documented America’s decades of support for the Jewish state. Musical interludes included a duet by singers performing James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and two men in tight white clothes performed an interpretive modern dance apparently meant to represent the friendship between the two countries.
At the Knesset, Bush spoke of the past and the future, outlining his vision of what Israel and the Middle East might look like 60 years from now. He described a halcyon vision of peace for the region but was short on the details of how to get there, specifically sidestepping any discussion of negotiations with the Palestinians.
“Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary as one of the world’s great democracies, a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people,” he said. “The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved – a democratic state that is governed by law, respects human rights and rejects terror.”
He also said Iran and Syria would be peaceful nations and al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas would be defeated.
Speaking with reporters traveling with the president, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe defended Bush’s choice not to discuss the Palestinians in his speech. He said issues related to the Palestinians would be addressed during the president’s stop in the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheik over the weekend, where he will be meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Johndroe said that talks between Israel and the Palestinians were making progress, despite speculation to the contrary.
“We think there are good, quiet conversations the two sides are having,” he said, “quiet so they can work things out of the glare of the spotlight.”
But for a president who has said he hopes to have a peace deal in hand by the time he leaves office in January, hopes for a breakthrough seem dim.
In his sendoff to Bush, Peres called him a “man never short of faith” and “a man always in the service of the great American values.”
“This is to say thank you and God bless you and God bless the United States of America,” he said.