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(photo credit: GPO [file])
In a spirited and stirring speech of friendship for Israel, US President George W. Bush told the Knesset on Thursday that the US-Israeli alliance is "unbreakable."
"Earlier today, I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice," Bush said. "At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: 'Masada shall never fall again.' Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will always stand with you."
The president, in a speech punctuated by applause on numerous occasions, and capped by a standing ovation, said the US-Israeli relationship was "grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul."
Sounding like the Bush of the immediate post 9/11 days, the US president said the fight against terror and extremism was "the defining challenge of our time."
"It is more than a clash of arms," he said. "It is a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle. On one side are those who defend the ideals of justice and dignity with the power of reason and truth. On the other side are those who pursue a narrow vision of cruelty and control by committing murder, inciting fear, and spreading lies."
At its core, Bush said, this was a battle "between good and evil. The killers claim the mantle of Islam, but they are not religious men. No one who prays to the God of Abraham could strap a suicide vest to an innocent child, or blow up guiltless guests at a Pessah Seder, or fly planes into office buildings filled with unsuspecting workers."
Bush praised Israel for the society it has built against the odds, and for its tenacity and determination to fight terrorism, pledging that the US would stand as one with Israel in this battle.
"Israel's population may be just over seven million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you," he said.
Bush provided no specifics about the state of the diplomatic process, and made only one reference in the 2,400-word speech to a Palestinian state. That reference came in the context of an almost utopian vision he laid out for the region in 60 years time, when the state turns 120.
"Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary as one of the worlds great democracies, a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people," Bush envisioned. "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 said that on that day, al-Qaida, Hizbullah and Hamas would be defeated, "as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause."
Bush, during the speech, took a couple of pointed jabs, one at the United Nations, and another that appeared to be directed at Sen. Barack Obama.
"We believe that democracy is the only way to ensure human rights," Bush said. "So we consider it a source of shame that the United Nations routinely passes more human rights resolutions against the freest democracy in the Middle East than any other nation in the world."
His reference to Obama was more veiled. "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," he 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.'"
Obama has come out in favor of negotiations both with Iran and Syria. Bush said the US stood firmly with Israel in opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. "Permitting the worlds leading sponsor of terror to possess the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," he said, stopping short, however, of a commitment to keep Iran from going nuclear under his watch.
"You have raised a modern society in the Promised Land, a light unto the nations that preserves the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," he said at the end of the speech. "And you have built a mighty democracy that will endure forever and can always count on America to stand at its side."
"May God bless Israel," Bush said at the end of the address, which was welcomed by a number of Knesset members from across the political spectrum, with some going so far as to claim the American leader as one of their own.
"Bush taught [Prime Minister] Olmert a lesson in Zionism. His speech was the speech of an NU-NRP member and his unbounded support for Israel is exciting," said MK Zevulun Orlev (National Union-National Religious Party), who also called on the American president to release Jonathan Pollard.
"If only our leaders would make speeches like that," said MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud). "It was a clearly Zionist speech."
But it was not only the right-wing parties that welcomed Bush's comments. "It was not necessarily a balanced speech, but it will be remembered for its commitment to the security of the State of Israel," said MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz).
Not all lawmakers, however, were impressed with the visiting president. The majority of Arab MKs boycotted the speech altogether, although a handful arrived at the beginning of Bush's speech, bearing signs saying "We shall overcome" and pictures of dead children. In the middle of the speech, they stood and left.
Bush was not the only focus of protest during the special Knesset session - NU-NRP MKs called out in the middle of Olmert's speech, after the prime minister said that a strong majority of the legislature would ultimately vote in favor of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"Only in your dreams," yelled out MK Arye Eldad, before two of his party's members walked out in protest.
Even though Bush articulated extremely strong support for Israel, he did not announce - as some had expected - any new arms sales or strategic agreements.
Over the past few weeks there have been numerous reports - the bulk of them originating with Israeli sources - that Bush was going to bring with him a package of "parting gifts." Among the rumored presents were state-of the art radar, stealth bombers, a vague upgrade of the strategic relationship with the US, and even a pardon for Pollard.
So far none of the gifts have materialized, but one government official said Israeli and US officials were still discussing various components, and that something might be announced before Bush leaves office on January 20, 2009.
There is a sense in Jerusalem that before Bush leaves office he may want to leave some lasting monument to the US-Israeli relationship, which could be in the form of a strategic arms sale or a declaration that would institutionalize the US-Israeli relationship.
Prior to his speech in the Knesset, Bush - accompanied by Olmert - toured Masada. He also met with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, a close ally when the later was Britain's prime minister, and discussed with him the details of the plan Blair has put together to give the Palestinian Authority increased security control of a large section of northern Samaria in and around the Jenin area. The plan also calls for the removal of four IDF roadblocks, relocation of another, and upgrading of seven more.
Bush also held a reception at the Israel Museum for some 600 invited guests, and then went with his wife, Laura, to the Prime Minister's Residence for a private dinner with the Olmerts.
While Bush dined with Olmert, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for talks that were expected to focus on the Palestinian track. Rice met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday.
Bush is scheduled to hold a roundtable discussion at the Israel Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem on Friday morning with a dozen Israelis aged 17 to 25, hand-picked by the US Embassy, before leaving for Saudi Arabia around noon.
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