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Bush tours Israel`s ancient fortress of Masada PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 16 May 2008

Reuters, Masada, Israel - President George W Bush on Thursday toured the Roman-era desert fortress of Masada, a national symbol in Israel of Jewish fighting spirit and self-sacrifice against powerful enemies and overwhelming odds.

A cable car carried Bush to the top of the towering plateau where 960 Jewish men, women and children committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman forces crushing a rebellion in ancient Judea, in an act chronicled by a 1st-century historian.

Bush, on a three-day visit to celebrate Israel's founding 60 years ago, flew to the desert south of Jerusalem hours before Palestinians were to mark the anniversary, which they refer to as the "Nakba" or catastrophe, with a mournful siren.

An advance text of a speech Bush was to make to Israel's parliament contained just one reference to Palestinians and no mention of his hope of sealing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves the White House in January.

Instead, Bush spelled out a vision of the Middle East in 60 years, predicting Israel will celebrate its 120th anniversary "as one of the world's great democracies" and the Palestinians "will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved".

Bush said the United States stood by Israel in "firmly opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions" and that letting Tehran acquire atomic arms would be "an unforgivable betrayal of future generations", according to the advance copy.

Tehran says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity.

At Masada, Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert viewed ruins including a water collection system that sustained besieged Jewish zealots at the sand-colored sanctuary.

Bush and then Olmert poured water from a silver jug to demonstrate how the system caught water.

"The courage and bravery of those who fought at Masada can be seen in Israelis today," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said before Bush's visit to the site of ancient Roman ramparts overlooking the Dead Sea.

SETBACKS

There have been few signs of progress in US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since promises were made at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.

In the latest setback to a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert has been urged to resign over suspicions he took bribes from a US businessman. Olmert has denied wrongdoing but pledged to quit if indicted, and this could delay any peace accord.

Violence around the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip still hampers peace efforts. A rocket fired from the territory hit a shopping mall in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, wounding several people, on Wednesday.

An Israeli air strike later killed two Hamas fighters.

The White House condemned the attack on Ashkelon and blamed Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist organization.

Hamas says it wants to destroy Israel, replacing it with an Islamic state also embracing the West Bank and Gaza. However, it has also offered Israel a conditional ceasefire.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has urged Palestinians to march on the border and "break the siege" -- an Israeli-led embargo that has been stepped up since the Islamists routed Abbas's forces in the enclave last June.

Israel's military garrison at the planned rally point, the border crossing of Erez, is on standby and prepared to use force to repel the Palestinians, a security source said.

At a tribute on Wednesday evening to U.S.-Israeli ties and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state, Bush appeared moved to tears when Olmert heaped praise on the U.S. president as a strong friend of Israel.

At home Bush is suffering low ratings in opinion polls, partly due to discontent over the Iraq war.

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