Bush to Knesset: U.S. stands with Israel, Masada will not fall again
U.S. President: U.S. proud to be Israel's closest ally; PM: Most Israelis will okay 2-state solution.
In an historic address to the Knesset on Thursday, U.S. President George Bush reiterated America's commitment to Israel and said his country was "proud to be Israel's closest ally and best friend."
Bush, on a three-day visit to Israel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, told a special session of Knesset that "Masada will not fall again," in reference to the Roman-era desert fortress which he visited earlier in the day.
The site is a national symbol in Israel of Jewish fighting spirit and self-sacrifice against powerful enemies and overwhelming odds.
Bush pledged in his address that the United States has an unbreakable bond with Israel.
"Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away," Bush said in his prepared address.
"This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of our enemies, and America rejects it utterly. 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."
In his address, Bush called Israel "the freest democracy in the Middle East" and criticized the United Nations for routinely leveling human rights complaints against it.
He criticized the deadly tactics of extremist groups and denounced anti-Semitism, especially by those who want to wipe the nation off the map.
"We believe that religious liberty is fundamental to civilized society so we condemn anti-Semitism in all forms whether by those who openly question Israel's right to exist, or by others who quietly excuse them," Bush said.
Bush hammered home his view that democracy could prevail against extremism in the Middle East, where he has struggled to push his "freedom agenda."
His strongest criticism was aimed at Iran, Israel's main foe in the region. He also told Knesset members that letting Iran acquire nuclear weapons would be an "unforgivable betrayal of future generations."
"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.
"America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions," he said.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said prior to the address: "The United States and Israel share a belief that all people have the right to live in peace, that democracy is the best way to ensure human rights, that religious liberty is fundamental to civilized society and that using violence to achieve political objectives is always wrong."
He added that Washington sees Israel as one of its partners in the fight against "extremists, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaida as well as [in efforts to] deal with Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions."
Olmert: Most Israelis will approve two-state solution
Speaking prior to Bush's addresses, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that once the proposal for a two-state solution is brought before the Knesset, he is certain a majority of lawmakers and civilians will approve the motion.
Olmert said he was committed to carrying out Bush's vision of forming an independent Palestinian state next to Israel and was certain that the divided Knesset and public would rally behind the initiative.
"When the day comes for a historic peace agreement between us and our Palestinian neighbors. It will be brought to the approval of this house, Olmert said. I am convinced: a peace agreement that will reflect the vision you presented to the world in June 2002, and that will be based on two states for two people, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace," he said.
"This agreement will be approved in the Knesset by a large majority and will be supported by the vast majority of the Israeli public," he added.
The chamber reacted with silence and nervous laughter to this comment, which prompted a chamber walkout by hardline MKs Uri Ariel and Zvi Hendel.
Both Olmert and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose address immediately proceeded Bush's, called for harsh action to be taken against Iran's nuclear development.
Netanyahu also said that while preparing a settlement with the Palestinians, negotiators must not forget that the purpose of peace is to strengthen security, not weaken it.
White House: Masada fighters' courage seen in modern Israelis
Bush toured the Roman-era desert fortress of Masada earlier Thursday.
A cable car carried Bush to the top of the towering plateau, where in an act chronicled by a 1st-century historian, 960 Jewish men, women and children committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman forces crushing a rebellion in ancient Judea.
At Masada, Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert viewed ruins including a water collection system that sustained besieged Jewish zealots at the sand-colored sanctuary.
"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.