U.S. President George W. Bush, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert share a laugh after touring the historic fortress of Masada, Thursday, in Israel. The leaders toured Masada, the ancient fortress on a plateau in the desert overlooking the Dead Sea, said to be the place where Jewish rebels killed themselves and each other 2,000-years ago rather than fall into slavery under the Romans.
Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Enlarge
JERUSALEM - President Bush feted Israel on Thursday in honor of the 60th anniversary of its founding and predicted that its 120th birthday would find it alongside a Palestinian state and in an all-democratic neighborhood free of today's oppression, restrictions on freedom and extremist Muslim movements.
Delivering this rosy forecast for the Middle East in 2068 during a speech to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Bush limited his mention of Palestinians to just one sentence. "The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved, a democratic state that is governed by law, and respects human rights, and rejects terror," he said.
This scant talk of the other side of one of the world's longest-running disputes contrasted jarringly with the more expansive treatment of the subject by Bush's Israeli hosts.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the lawmakers that he is working hard for an accord and believes "when the day comes for a historic peace agreement" that both the Knesset and the Israeli public will support it "by a large majority." The chamber reacted with silence and nervous laughter, which Bush briefly joined. Two hardline lawmakers walked out of the chamber in protest during Olmert's address.
Bush made no acknowledgment of the hardship Palestinians suffered when the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 displaced hundreds of thousands, a fact that serves as a counterpoint to Israel's two weeks of jubilant celebrations. Though Bush has set a goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian deal before the end of his term in January, he did not mention the ongoing negotiations or how to resolve the thorniest disputes.
The president also offered no detail on how the broader Mideast would move from today's realities to his vision.
"From Cairo and Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies, where a desire for peace is reinforced by ties of diplomacy, tourism and trade," he said. "Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations, where today's oppression is a distant memory and people are free to speak their minds and develop their talents. And al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush made such a brief mention of the Palestinians because his purpose was to sketch "broad themes and not the specifics of the process."
Johndroe also suggested that the Knesset wasn't the best place to talk in detail about the concerns of Palestinians. Bush was to meet later Thursday with international Mideast envoy Tony Blair precisely to discuss conditions in the Palestinian territories and then see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.
"The best venue to go into more detail on the situation with the Palestinians is with Abbas," Johndroe said. He said Bush also is likely to speak more expansively about Palestinians during remarks to Arab leaders in Egypt on Sunday.
While Israel marked its 60th anniversary, Palestinians engaged in their own annual ritual one of mourning. In the West Bank, the anniversary was being commemorated with rallies, sirens and the launch of thousands of black balloons.
Other conditions also are cause for deep concern and frustration in the Palestinian territories. The economy remains stagnant, despite a massive injection of foreign aid, in part because of Israel's reluctance to ease its restrictions on movement and trade. And the separation is deepening between Hamas-run Gaza and the West Bank, which is led by Abbas.
In reaction to the speech, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: "Bush's recognition of Palestine as the national homeland for the Jews is a very dangerous act of discrimination and racism, obliterating the right of return for Palestinians and establishing a genocide at the expense of Palestinian rights." He added: "We want to tell Bush, Israel is not going to survive another 60 years. Israel's end is drawing closer, and it will take less than 60 years to achieve it."
The primary theme of Bush's remarks to Israeli lawmakers was the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.
Bush began his address by exclaiming, "Yom Atzmaut Sameach," or "Happy Independence Day." He denounced anti-Semitism "in all forms," said Israel has a right to defend itself and earned a standing ovation for his most forceful statement of U.S. support for the Jewish state.
"Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of our enemies, and America rejects it utterly," Bush said to cheers and robust applause. "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."
Bush took special aim at Iran the anti-Israel statements of its leaders and alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
With new bursts of violence in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip intruding on his trip and the anniversary festivities, Bush also said that those who carry out terror attacks serve not God or Islam, but only their own desire for power.
"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 Passover Seder, or fly planes into office buildings filled with unsuspecting workers," he said.
Without naming names, Bush criticized those who "believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." He called the approach "the false comfort of appeasement," and one that has been discredited by history.
The strong words came as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, has expressed a willingness to meet with the leaders of U.S. adversaries, including Iran and Syria. However, White House press secretary Dana Perino flatly rejected the idea that the Knesset remark was aimed in any way at Obama, and Johndroe said Bush was referring to "a wide range of people who have talked to or suggested we talk to Hamas, Hezbollah or their state sponsors." Former President Carter recently held talks with Hamas leaders.
Obama said in a statement that "it is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel."
"Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power including tough, principled and direct diplomacy to pressure countries like Iran and Syria," he said.
Before appearing before the Knesset, Bush toured Masada, the ancient fortress on a plateau in the desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is said to be the place where Jewish rebels killed themselves and each other 2,000 years ago rather than fall into slavery under the advancing Romans army.
The Masada was the last stronghold of the Jews against the Romans, and the dramatic story, while coming under question recently, has played an important role in Israel's national mythology. Remains were recognized as Jewish heroes by Israel's government in 1969, complete with a state burial, and army units used to be sworn in on the mountaintop to cries of "Masada will not fall again."
Said Bush at the Knesset: "Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side."
The president was scheduled to depart Israel on Friday to continue his five-day Mideast journey, traveling on to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.