Bush gets hero's welcome at airport ceremony

US president: Our alliance "helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state."

bush in israel graphic  (photo credit: )
bush in israel graphic
(photo credit: )
In an effusive outpouring of support, the State of Israel rolled out the red carpet for US President George W. Bush when he arrived in Israel on Wednesday, with the entire cabinet and a full army band and honor guard welcoming the US president as he began his first visit to Israel in that post. "You are our strongest and most trusted ally in the battle against terrorism and fundamentalism and a staunch supporter of our quest for peace and stability," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during a short but moving state ceremony on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport, just minutes after Air Force One touched down at midday. "Through your vision, exceptional courage and determination in the face of evil and terror, 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," he said, calling the bonds between the two countries "unshakable." "We greet you here as a great friend," President Shimon Peres said, heaping praise on the American leader renowned for his uncompromising stand on the war on terrorism. "You towered at moments of need; you paved the road of peace." Minutes earlier, Bush, flanked by Olmert and Peres, stood at attention, clearly moved, as the American and Israeli national anthems were played. Air traffic in and out of the country's main airport had been halted for an hour ahead of Bush's 11:52 a.m. arrival, with six US helicopters, including four Marine helicopters, parked on the tarmac next to the two blue-and-white planes - Air Force One and its twin - and the United Airlines plane that had brought White House media to Israel the day before. After descending from the plane following the 10-hour flight, Bush, accompanied by Peres, inspected a row of IDF soldiers lined up along the tarmac, as senior Israeli security personnel saluted the US commander in chief. "This is by far the most exciting experience of my service," said St.-Sgt. Meitar Naveh, 19, who plays the trombone. "It is so moving to see the US president here in Israel," said Cpl. Yael Gat, 19, an army trumpet-player, adding that she had never seen so many VIPs up close in all her time in the army. "I hope he will come again to Israel, not for politics, but to see how beautiful the land is." Then the US president, accompanied by Olmert, moved to the line of dignitaries and religious leaders who had gathered to greet him, and, to the sound of Jerusalem of Gold and other Israeli classics, shook hands with the well-wishers as the flags of both nations fluttered in a light wind and a warming winter sun emerged from the clouds. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had quietly descended with the president's entourage from the rear of Air Force One, stopped to shake hands with Israeli Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor on her way to the line of dignitaries, then warmly clasped Olmert's hands when he reached her with the US president. "We see a new opportunity for peace here in the Holy Land and for freedom across the region," Bush said at the welcoming ceremony, before flying by helicopter to Jerusalem for talks with Peres and Olmert. Bush also stressed the deep US-Israel ties. in words laced with special significance in light of the Palestinians' recent, public refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Bush noted that after his first trip to Israel a decade ago, he knew he would be coming back to this "special place," but never imagined it would be as president, adding that his one regret was that his wife Laura was not traveling with him this time. Then, under the watchful eye of jacketed American and Israeli secret service agents who scoured the scene throughout the event, Bush headed toward his helicopter for the ride to Jerusalem - and the conundrums of the Middle East.