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Bush hails Israel on 60th anniversary visit PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 15 May 2008

AFP, JERUSALEM  - US President George W. Bush praised Israel on Wednesday at the start of a three-day visit aimed at celebrating the Jewish state's 60th birthday and advancing the peace process with the Palestinians.

"One reason I bring so much optimism to the Middle East is because what happened here (in Israel) is possible everywhere," Bush told Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Speaking at the start of a regional tour, Bush added that the United States must support its "strongest ally and friend in the Middle East, the only true democracy, against the forces of terror."

Bush, who has voiced hope of a peace deal by the time he leaves office in January, hailed what he described as an "enduring alliance" between the United States and Israel against "terrorists and tyrants."

His visit comes at a time of renewed turmoil in the region which bodes ill for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that have made little tangible progress since they were revived at a conference he hosted in November.

The trip is also taking place against a backdrop of deadly sectarian fighting in Lebanon that Bush has blamed on Syria and Iran, defiance from Hamas over conditions for a truce in the embattled and besieged Gaza Strip, and a corruption scandal embroiling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"I look forward to discussing how I believe our two nations can continue to advance our ideals and approach our next 60 years of partnership with confidence and with hope," Bush said earlier in a brief address.

The US president will also visit Saudi Arabia to mark 75 years of US relations with the oil-rich kingdom, and hold talks in Egypt with regional leaders, including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

The visit to Israel is Bush's second since January -- after seven years in which he did not set foot in either Israel or the Palestinian territories.

He is due to address Israel's parliament on Thursday, when Palestinians will commemorate the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who lost their homes and their land when the Jewish state was created in May 1948.

Bush's national security advisor Stephen Hadley called Israel's 60th birthday "a great event" but added: "We also recognize that that event resulted in hardship for many Palestinian people."

He said Bush was determined to "redeem that hardship" by helping to create a Palestinian state, "a homeland for the Palestinian people in the same way that Israel 60 years ago became the homeland for the Jewish people."

The US president hopes a peace deal will shore up his legacy and has expressed confidence an agreement could be reached in the eight months left in his term despite the lack of any tangible progress in negotiations.

He was to hold talks on Wednesday with Olmert, who faces mounting calls to resign over allegations he took bribes from a millionaire US financier.

Palestinians are concerned the Olmert affair could make Israel take a harder line regarding settlement building, lead to military escalation and further stall any peace talks.

Since Olmert and Abbas relaunched the peace process in November the talks have been hobbled by Israel's continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and by escalating violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Four Palestinians were killed in Israeli military operations in Gaza on Wednesday, bringing to more than 460 the number of people killed since the peace talks were renewed, most of them Palestinian militants.

Both sides have talked separately to Egyptian mediators about a possible truce, but Hamas rejected Israel's demand that it first release an Israeli soldier captured almost two years ago.

At a ceremony in Gaza marking six decades of what the Palestinians call the "Naqba" -- Arabic for catastrophe -- senior Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar said he did not welcome Bush or others "who want to please the American devil."

Bush faces another crisis in Lebanon, where Israel's archfoe Hezbollah has led an armed campaign against forces loyal to the pro-Western government which has resulted in more than 60 deaths in the past week.

Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose nation backs Hezbollah, ridiculed Israel's celebrations, saying that "throwing a birthday party for this regime is like having a birthday party for a dead person."

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