Bush, in Jerusalem: Israel is our strongest friend and ally in the Mideast

Bush, in Jerusalem: Israel is our strongest friend and ally in the Mideast
By Barak Ravid and Shahar Ilan, Haaretz Correspondents, Haaretz Service and Agencies

United States President George W. Bush on Wednesday arrived in Israel to participate in celebrations of the country’s 60th anniversary.

At a visit later in the day at President Shimon Peres’ official residence in Jerusalem, Bush declared that Israel was “Our strongest friend and ally in the Middle East.”
For his part, Peres raised the subject of regional tensions, telling the U.S. president that Hezbollah is destroying Lebanon and that Hamas’ behavior in Gaza is preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Upon the U.S. president’s arrival, he addressed the assembled Israeli dignitaries at Ben Gurion international airport, stating: “Our two nations both faced great challenges when they were founded. And our two nations have both relied on the same principles to help us succeed.”

“We built strong democracies to protect the freedoms given to us by an almighty God,” he said at the red-carpet ceremony.

The U.S. president concluded: “We consider the Holy Land a very special place and we consider the Israeli people our close friends. Shalom.”

As an army band played the American and Israeli national anthems, the U.S. president was greeted by Israel’s political leadership, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Peres and opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu.

Olmert earlier welcomed Bush, praising his visit to Israel as an extraordinary gesture of friendship.

In opening remarks, the prime minister declared: “Our strategic alliance with the U.S is one of Israel`s pillars of security.”

Peres, who also spoke at the ceremony, told Bush that, “We are grateful to you for gracing this occasion.” He then lauded the U.S. president for his “steady dedication to the promotion of peace and security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, part of Bush’s entourage, accompanied the U.S. leader as he walked across the airport runway, as did Bush’s wife Laura.

Bush is to participate in the “Facing Tomorrow” presidential conference held in Jerusalem during his three-day visit, at which he will deliver a speech on Wednesday evening. He will also speak before the Knesset on Thursday, and will visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt later on in this trip.

Despite the festive nature of the visit, Bush will find his host, Ehud Olmert, in deep trouble as a widening investigation into the prime minister’s conduct has raised serious doubt over his political future.

Most probably in reference to the investigation, Olmert gave assurances to a senior U.S. official as Bush arrived in Israel. “Holding on, holding on, don’t worry,” Olmert told Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, at the airport. The remarks were picked up by broadcasters’ microphones.

On the first day of the presidential conference, Olmert said on Tuesday that he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have reached “understandings and points of agreement” on key issues in U.S-backed peace talks but he gave no details.

On Monday, Bush said that the peace process is not dependent on a single individual, indirectly responding to fears that investigation into Olmert could derail Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

At a meeting with Israeli journalists at the White House Monday morning, Bush offered words of support for Olmert, saying he is an “honest guy,” easy to talk with and “a strategic thinker,” and that relations between the two leaders are “nothing but excellent.”

Al-Zahar: No welcome for Bush in the Holy Land

In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leader of the Islamist group opposed to the U.S. peace efforts, said: “There is no welcome for Bush in the Holy Land. There is no welcome for hypocrite presidents who are defiling our land.”

Bush, who flew on to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv by helicopter, will not visit the Palestinian territories but planned to meet Abbas in Egypt on Saturday. In Jerusalem, Mrs. Bush toured a government clinic that offers low-cost immunizations and other health care services to families with young children.

Ahead of the visit, three human rights groups sent a letter to Bush urging him to pressure Israel to lift the Gaza blockade. Israel imposed the blockade in an attempt to halt ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza at western Negev towns, but the groups said the move is collective punishment that is harming Palestinian civilians.

The president’s final stop will be at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he will meet over two days with a handful of leaders: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Iraqi leaders. Bush also is scheduled to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, but that is in doubt now after clashes between the U.S.-backed government in Beirut and Hezbollah-led opposition.

While the president is in the Middle East this week, Bush administration officials plan to work during UN Security Council meetings to rally other countries to support Lebanon’s government and to condemn Iran and Syria, which the White House believes are behind the recent clashes. “Obviously, we are also going to talk to various countries about additional pressure that can be put on Syria and Iran,” Hadley said.

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