May 15, 2008 in Nation/World

President arrives in Israel for talks on peace process

Terence Hunt Associated Press
Associated Press photo

President Bush gets a hug from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Israel’s President Shimon Peres looks on during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

JERUSALEM – From a whispered conversation to a deafening rocket attack, there were fresh signs of trouble Wednesday on the perilous road toward Mideast peace.

As President Bush greeted Israeli officials at the airport on his arrival, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew aside the White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, for a few quiet words. A key player in the Mideast talks, Olmert has been weakened by a corruption investigation that has raised doubts about his ability to make compromises necessary for a deal with Palestinian leaders. He has promised to resign if indicted.

“Holding on. Holding on. Don’t worry,” Olmert told Hadley. Picked up by media microphones, the anxious assurance did little to assuage questions about Olmert’s influence or grip on power.

Within hours, there was even more troubling news.

Bush and Olmert met to discuss the peace process and threats to Israel’s security – only to learn that a rocket fired from Gaza had slammed into a crowded shopping center in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. At least 14 people were wounded. Two militant groups, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility.

“What happened today is entirely intolerable and unacceptable,” Olmert declared at an Israeli celebration Wednesday night during which Bush was honored. “The government of Israel is committed to stopping it, and we will take the necessary steps so that this will stop.”

The White House blamed Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Welcomed as Israel’s closest ally, Bush was the star guest at an evening of music, dance and speeches marking the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding in the wake of the Nazi holocaust. Bush’s approval ratings are at record lows at home, but he got a hero’s reception here.

The audience of several thousand people included American businessman Sheldon Adelson, whom Israeli police questioned Monday in the Olmert probe. Wednesday night, the billionaire casino mogul sat in the front row with Bush, first lady Laura Bush and other U.S. and Israeli officials, including Olmert.

In 1948, the United States was the first country to recognize Israel, 11 minutes after the Israelis declared statehood. In that decision, President Harry Truman broke with his secretary of state, George Marshall, and most of the foreign policy community.

“Because Harry Truman did what was right instead of following the conventional wisdom, we can say today that America is Israel’s oldest and best friend in the world,” Bush said to cheers from conference guests.

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