In Israel, Bush outlines a blunt vision for the Middle East
At the Knesset on Thursday, the president spoke in visionary terms of Israel's future, saying that the core of the current regional conflict 'was an ancient battle between good and evil.'
Jerusalem — President Bush, at the height of his Wednesday-to-Friday visit here to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel, stood before the Knesset and laid out a vision for the Middle East 60 years down the road: an Israel that still stands tall, lives next to a Palestinian state, and is surrounded by countries where democracy and human rights reign.
But his shorter-term vision, particularly in terms of his view of how things look today, sounded like a return to the stark rhetoric he became famous for in 2002 when he described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an axis of evil.
His prepared speech was also laden with religious imagery, mapping a spiritual and ideological picture of a close US-Israel relationship that seemed unprecedented in a speech by any US president, analysts say.
"This struggle is waged with the technology of the 21st century, but at its core it is the ancient battle between good and evil," Mr. Bush said Thursday in his official speech at the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "The killers claim the mantle of Islam, but they are not religious men," he said. "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."
In the speech, Bush offered unwavering support for Israel, referring to its enemies in Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as dark forces that Israel and the West should not be fooled into "appeasing," evoking the world's appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.
"No nation should ever be forced to negotiate with killers pledged to its destruction," Bush said, a reference to suggestions from some mediators – such as former President Jimmy Carter in a recent mission here – that Israel should negotiate with Hamas, which controls Gaza. The comment was also seen as aimed at Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama who has suggested that the US sit down at the table with Iran and Syria.
"There are good and decent people who cannot fathom the darkness in these men and try to explain their words away. This is natural. But it is deadly wrong," Bush said. "As witnesses to evil in the past, we carry a solemn responsibility to take these words seriously," he added, after mentioning Mr. Ahmadinejad's suggestions that Israel ought to be "wiped off the map."
"Permitting the world's 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," Bush said, engendering a long round of applause.
Analysts here were quick to note some of the words that he did not mention. These include the "Annapolis Process," which he launched last November, and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, which Palestinians view as one of the primary obstacles to peace.
"I don't think that anything is going to happen here in terms of peace because of Mr. Bush's beliefs," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University near Ramallah, after hearing Bush's address. In the Palestinian territories Thursday, Palestinians marked the nakba, or the catastrophe, which is their commemoration of the Arab exodus that coincided with the founding of Israel.
"His speech tells me that we're not going to have a settlement to the conflict, and these things [are] going to be entangled for many years to come. He said that Israel will be around in 60 years, and that the Palestinians 'deserve' to have a state, so maybe we should wait another 60 years," Dr. Jarbawi says, with irony in his voice.
"What he is offering the Palestinians is the Israeli position," Jarbawi adds, "a state of leftovers. Israel can decide what it wants to eat from the West Bank, and will leave the rest of it to the Palestinians."
At the Knesset Thursday, it was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who sounded the most enthusiastic about reaching a peace breakthrough while both he and Bush are still in office, promising to present a deal for a two-state solution.
"When we reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, God willing, one which is based on your vision of a two-state solution, it will be brought before this house," Mr. Olmert said, speaking just before Bush. "This future peace agreement, I assure you, will be approved by a majority of this house and by the Israeli public," he added.
Several right-wing members of Knesset walked out of the parliamentary chamber as Olmert spoke, a reminder of the complications the Israeli premier faces, both in politics and in a new criminal probe. In a widening inquiry, Israel's police fraud unit is examining allegations that Olmert received hundreds of thousands of dollars from 1993 to 2005 from Morris Talansky, a business mogul from New York.
The investigations have overshadowed the 60th anniversary celebration and, even amid the fanfare of Bush's visit and the presence of hundreds of other dignitaries in Israel, has the political circuit awash with talk of calling for early elections in a bid to replace Olmert. Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, the defense minister, are the two most often mentioned as leaders waiting in the wings for a return to power. Both men served as prime ministers in the 1990s.
Bush will be in Israel until Friday, when he flies to Saudi Arabia, and then to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, over the weekend, in order to attend the World Economic Forum. There, he will be meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to push forward peace efforts. But the fact Bush will not have met any Palestinian leaders during his 48-hour visit here, in conjunction with the speech he delivered at the Knesset, is likely to underscore for the Arab world that the main emphasis of Bush's visit here was celebrating the relationship between Israel and the US first, and pushing forward the peace process a distant second.
Even some of the Israelis from the hawkish side of the spectrum noted with some wonderment the extent to which Bush has extended a message of warmth, but one devoid of the "tough love" that often characterized the era of President Clinton, who worked hard at getting Israel and its Arab neighbors to reach watershed peace deals.
"He didn't remind us even once of the words 'the Annapolis Process,' and I don't think it was coincidental," said Gideon Saar, a Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party. "He spoke about peace in Israel almost like it was something that will come at the End of Days."