(AFP) – May 16, 2008
JERUSALEM (AFP) — Facing dismally low approval ratings at home, US President George W. Bush basked for three days in near-adulation as he joined Israel's 60th anniversary festivities.
Bush, who was to head on to Saudi Arabia on Friday, returned the favour, hailing the close US ally as a mighty democracy where liberty and justice thrive.
Just about every moment appeared to be devoted to mutual expressions of admiration and friendship, which also offered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a respite from the latest police graft investigation against him.
His speech to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, drew him standing ovations and earned him ecstatic praise from right-wing parties.
"It was a Zionist speech in the full sense of the word," said former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, of the Likud party. "His speech was the speech of a member of the National Religious Party," NRP chairman Zvulun Orlev said, according to the Maariv daily.
"You have raised a modern society in the promised land," Bush told members of parliament on Thursday. "And you have built a mighty democracy that will endure forever and can always count on America to stand at its side."
Seven months before his term of office ends, Bush leaves a complex legacy in the Middle East where Israel and the Palestinians remain locked in a cycle of violence despite an 11th hour drive to reach a peace deal by the end of this year.
The peace talks, which Bush helped restart last November after a seven-year freeze, have made little visible progress, and the Islamist Hamas movement's seizure of the Gaza Strip last June has cast a shadow over the prospects.
But Bush never wavered in his support of Israel in the face of threats from Islamist movements and, most of all, Iran's controversial nuclear programme and its rhetoric against the Jewish state.
"The alliance between our governments is unbreakable," Bush said at the special session of parliament.
Such declarations have earned the devout Protestant almost wall-to-wall support among Israel's Jewish population.
"We were lucky that you sealed this alliance. And for that, Israel owes you a big historic debt," parliamentary speaker Dalia Yitzik said.
Hawkish opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, called Bush "a great friend of Israel, a great American patriot."
But Bush's unstinting support of Israel has also earned him some criticism for failing to press the government to work harder towards a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"As an Israeli, I feel almost uncomfortable... What we've done over the past two days is an act of weakness, not of strength," said Daniel Ben Simon, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz daily.
"We are begging Bush... politically there was unlimited love, but I want love with essence," he said.
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