US President Bush in the Knesset
US President Bush in the KnessetKnesset TV channel

In a speech before the Knesset on Thursday afternoon, US President George W. Bush spoke of a deep US-Israel alliance, praised the Jewish people, and presented his vision of the future Middle East.

In their speeches to the plenum and to President Bush, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud)

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik focused on the Palestinian Authority Katyusha attack in Ashkelon on the day of the President's arrival here.

emphasized the Iranian threat and the Jewish people's rights to Jerusalem, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeatedly praised Bush and his vision for Israel-PA negotiations. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik focused on the Palestinian Authority Katyusha attack in Ashkelon on the day of the President's arrival here.

Itzik began her brief comments by addressing the rocket attack, which injured dozens of people in a shopping center:

"I very much wanted to open this celebratory, important and moving occasion with words of blessing, but since last night I cannot get the pictures of the destruction and devastation in the Ashkelon mall out of my mind. Since last night, I can't stop thinking about the young mother and her baby daughter going to the medical clinic and, in a split-second flash of fire, smoke and debris dust, their lives are changed. Dreams and life aspirations, studies and making a living - cut short suddenly by a deadly rocket fired by Hamas from Gaza that explodes in Ashkelon."

She then directly addressed the US President and said, "Sir, this is not a unique event. This is the reality of our lives in recent years. But that reality will change, because there is a limit to our mercy and tolerance for Hamas. We will respond, and we will respond with a heavy hand."

PM Olmert: 'America's Greatest Gift' is Support for Negotiations

After select words of greeting for "the president of a great nation, the leader of the Free World," and "a true, steadfast and loyal friend of the State of Israel," Prime Minister Olmert dedicated much of the beginning of his speech praising the "deep-rooted friendship between the United States and Israel."

He recounted that America demanded that the gates of the Land of Israel be opened to Holocaust survivors even before the State of Israel was proclaimed; that the US was the first country to recognize the Jewish State; that America helped financially when Israel "took upon itself the challenge of absorbing hundreds of thousands of destitute Jewish refugees from Europe and Arab states"; that the US armed Israel against Soviet-supplied enemies; that the US pressured Russia to free Soviet Jews; and that "it was American President George Bush Sr. who acted to bring to Israel the masses of Ethiopian Jews in the operation later known as Operation Moses." Olmert also noted America's stance in Israel's defense in international forums such as the United Nations.

"However, today I can proudly say that the relations are no longer based merely on dependence, but rather on cooperation and mutual benefit," the Prime Minister said. "In the fields of trade, technology, research and development there is a true partnership between our countries, a partnership founded on economic considerations, but also on shared values and a world view which attributes great value to the Israeli entrepreneurship and ingenuity."

Further excerpts of the Prime Minister's speech to the Knesset on the occasion of President Bush's visit follow:

"This visit provided another important opportunity for us to discuss the advancement of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in accordance with your vision, Mr. President, of two states for two peoples. Your personal involvement, and the commendable efforts of the Secretary of State, Ms. Condoleezza Rice, is vital for the success of the intensive negotiations taking place between us and the Palestinians."

"...There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that confronting the murderous, fundamentalist threat of terror, which is devoid of any moral inhibitions, is the most important challenge currently facing democratic societies across the globe. ...The outcome of this confrontation will have far-reaching repercussions on the future and way of life of the Free World. You, Mr. President, will be remembered as the one who courageously, and without hesitation, took the reigns of leadership and stood firmly and determinedly against this formidable challenge.

"The most severe source of threat currently to the stability of the Middle East and to world peace is, as you know, Iran. The danger lies in the pretentious ambition of the regime in Tehran to achieve regional hegemony, its cynical use of terror and religious hatred to further its aims, and its obvious pursuit of nuclear capabilities. The Iranian President's threats to wipe Israel off the map, and the preparations he makes to carry this out through long-range missiles and nuclear capabilities, compel us to be ready to defend ourselves. But the threat is not aimed at Israel alone, and the majority of countries in the region also see themselves threatened."

"...On its 60th anniversary, Israel has no stronger desire than to achieve peace with its Palestinian neighbors and other Arab states. Your continued support of the effort to achieve peace and security in our region is America's greatest gift to the State of Israel on its 60th anniversary."

Two Right-Wing MKs , Arab MKs Absent Themselves

In the midst of Prime Minister Olmert's speech, MKs Tzvi Hendel and Uri Ariel (National Union) left the Knesset hall in protest over Olmert's promise that the Knesset would approve an agreement for a Palestinian state. "The Prime Minister is using a celebratory occasion in which we are honoring the President of the United States to emphasize disputes in our society and to promote a political agenda which most of the Israeli public disagrees with," MKs Hendel and Ariel said afterwards in a joint statement.

MK Hendel added that it would be best if Olmert would learn national pride and Zionism from President Bush.

MKs from the Arab parties in Knesset made themselves absent ahead of the special parliamentary session in Bush's honor. According to MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List), "Bush is a dangerous leader and is not worthy of the mantle of Israel's new prophet, as has been presented in recent days."

MK Netanyahu Describes Israel's Three Tasks

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke just before the US President. He began by summarizing his main themes in English for President Bush and the American delegation.

The following are excerpts of MK Netanyahu's speech:

"Our primary task is to prevent Iran, which declares its intention to exterminate us, from obtaining nuclear arms. More than twelve years ago, in a speech I made as Prime Minister before both Houses of Congress, I said that the greatest threat facing humanity is the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons. Time is running out.

"The second task is to prevent Iran from establishing additional bases around us, such as in Lebanon and Gaza. The unilateral withdrawals just created those terrorist bases, delayed peace and encouraged terrorism. That is what is we see before our very eyes every day with the rocket fire on Sderot, Ashkelon and the communities of the western Negev. This must stop. Faced with terrorism, Israel must change from a policy of attrition to a policy of victory, just as you yourself did, Mr. President.

"And the third task is to bring peace to our region. The State of Israel has been working towards peace since its establishment. Peace will come when the nations themselves see it as a basic human need that allows them to improve their lives. Therefore, we must promote an economic peace today with our Palestinian neighbors. In this way, we will strengthen the moderates and weaken the extremists."

"...Even in a permanent agreement, Israel must maintain defensible borders, because only a peace that can be defended will be able to exist in the long term.

"And we will have to maintain something else. It is not simply a matter of secure borders or territory, rather it constitutes an indivisible part of the basis of our existence here – Jerusalem!"

Pres. Bush Delivers the Most Overtly Religious Speech

US President George Bush spoke for almost 25 minutes, delivering a speech filled with references to God, to Israel as the Holy Land and to the heritage of the Biblical patriarchs, as well as to what he characterized as America's unswerving commitment to Israel.

Bush began by joking that he was told it is a rare event "to have just one person in this chamber speaking at a time." He noted his regret that Ariel Sharon, who is still hospitalized and in a coma, was not able to be with him.

The following are excerpts of President Bush's addresses to the members of the Knesset:

"We gather to mark a momentous occasion. Sixty years ago in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel's independence, founded on the "natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate." What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David -- a homeland for the chosen people: Eretz Yisrael.

"Eleven minutes later, on the orders of President Harry Truman, the United States was proud to be the first nation to recognize Israel's independence. And on this landmark anniversary, America is proud to be Israel's closest ally and best friend in the world.

"The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul. When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted the words of Jeremiah: "Come let us declare in Zion the word of God." The founders of my country saw a new promised land and bestowed upon their towns names like Bethlehem and New Canaan. And in time, many Americans became passionate advocates for a Jewish state.

"Centuries of suffering and sacrifice would pass before the dream was fulfilled. The Jewish people endured the agony of the pogroms, the tragedy of the Great War, and the horror of the Holocaust -- what Elie Wiesel called "the kingdom of the night." Soulless men took away lives and broke apart families. Yet they could not take away the spirit of the Jewish people, and they could not break the promise of God."

"...When Americans look at Israel, we see a pioneer spirit that worked an agricultural miracle and now leads a high-tech revolution. We see world-class universities and a global leader in business and innovation and the arts. We see a resource more valuable than oil or gold: the talent and determination of a free people who refuse to let any obstacle stand in the way of their destiny."

"...And earlier today, I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: 'Masada shall never fall again.' Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side."

"...We believe that democracy is the only way to ensure human rights. So we consider it a source of shame that the United Nations routinely passes more human rights resolutions against the freest democracy in the Middle East than any other nation in the world.

"We believe that religious liberty is fundamental to a 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.

"We believe that free people should strive and sacrifice for peace. So we applaud the courageous choices Israeli's leaders have made. We also believe that nations have a right to defend themselves and that no nation should ever be forced to negotiate with killers pledged to its destruction.

"We believe that targeting innocent lives to achieve political objectives is always and everywhere wrong. So we stand together against terror and extremism, and we will never let down our guard or lose our resolve. The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time."

"...This struggle is waged with the technology of the 21st century, but at its core it is an ancient battle between good and evil. The killers claim the mantle of Islam, but they are not religious men. No one who prays to the God of Abraham could strap a suicide vest to an innocent child, or blow up guiltless guests at a Passover Seder, or fly planes into office buildings filled with unsuspecting workers. In truth, the men who carry out these savage acts serve no higher goal than their own desire for power. They accept no God before themselves. And they reserve a special hatred for the most ardent defenders of liberty, including Americans and Israelis.

"And that is why the founding charter of Hamas calls for the elimination of Israel. And that is why the followers of Hizbullah chant, 'Death to Israel, Death to America!' That is why Osama bin Laden teaches that 'the killing of Jews and Americans is one of the biggest duties.' And that is why the President of Iran dreams of returning the Middle East to the Middle Ages and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map."

"...Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. ...We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

"Some people suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace, and America utterly rejects it. Israel's population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you."

President Bush went on to describe his view of the Middle East sixty years hence:

"Israel will be celebrating the 120th anniversary as one of the world's great democracies, a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people. The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved - a democratic state that is governed by law, and respects human rights, and rejects terror. From Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies, where a desire for peace is reinforced by ties of diplomacy and tourism and trade. Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations, with today's oppression a distant memory and where people are free to speak their minds and develop their God-given talents. Al-Qaeda and Hizbullah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause.

"Overall, the Middle East will be characterized by a new period of tolerance and integration. And this doesn't mean that Israel and its neighbors will be best of friends. But when leaders across the region answer to their people, they will focus their energies on schools and jobs, not on rocket attacks and suicide bombings. With this change, Israel will open a new hopeful chapter in which its people can live a normal life, and the dream of Herzl and the founders of 1948 can be fully and finally realized."

The US leader concluded with an apocryphal story from the time of Israel's founding:

"Sixty years ago, on the eve of Israel's independence, the last British soldiers departing Jerusalem stopped at a building in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. An officer knocked on the door and met a senior rabbi. The officer presented him with a short iron bar - the key to the Zion Gate - and said it was the first time in 18 centuries that a key to the gates of Jerusalem had belonged to a Jew. His hands trembling, the rabbi offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God, 'Who had granted us life and permitted us to reach this day.' Then he turned to the officer, and uttered the words Jews had awaited for so long: 'I accept this key in the name of my people.'

"Over the past six decades, the Jewish people have established a state that would make that humble rabbi proud. You have raised a modern society in the Promised Land, a light unto the nations that preserves the legacy of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And you have built a mighty democracy that will endure forever and can always count on the United States of America to be at your side. God bless."