Bush visit to Israel revives talk of a strike on Iran

JERUSALEM — President Bush's historic speech to the Israeli parliament was as telling for what it didn't say as for what it did.

In 22 minutes, Bush offered one of the strongest demonstrations of support for Israel ever made by an American president. And he reawakened lingering hopes among hawks in Israel or the United States for a U.S. military strike to thwart Iran's nuclear program.

Israel's Army Radio reported Friday that the possibility of an American strike on Iran was raised in private discussions during Bush's visit.

And Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that the Israeli prime minister and American president were "on the same page" on the issue of Iran.

"Both Israel and the United States agree that tangible steps have to be taken, that we cannot sit idly by and see Iran develop a nuclear weapon and that the international community has an obligation to take tangible steps to prevent that from happening," said Regev.

Meanwhile, Bush practically ignored a central foreign policy goal for his final year: to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that the president himself launched in Annapolis, Md., last November.

Some Israeli analysts viewed the omission as a realistic assessment of the diminishing chances for progress by year's end.

"I think he made a decision, or his aides made a decision, that it's better to play down this thing. Otherwise he would look ridiculous," said Uri Dromi, who served as a spokesman for Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

But the White House said that the Knesset wasn't the right forum. "This is a celebration of Israel's founding," spokeswoman Dana Perino said later. "It's not meant to be a 'kitchen sink' speech."

The skepticism of Israeli lawmakers about peace talks became clear even before Bush spoke. Two conservative religious lawmakers walked out during a speech by Olmert when he raised the subject of ceding land to the Palestinians.

One of them suggested that Bush is a stronger Zionist than Olmert. Olmert should "learn from the president of the United States what Zionism is," Israeli lawmaker Zvi Hendel said in a statement after walking out of the session as Bush looked on. Had Bush broached the issue, some analysts said, he could have been greeted with hisses, catcalls or even a similar walk-out protest.

At the same time, Bush's hesitancy to push the Israelis in the peace talks provoked three Arab-Israeli lawmakers to raise a "We shall overcome" sign when Bush started speaking.

Even if a U.S. military strike against Iran still seems far off, Bush's staunch backing for Israel was seen here as virtually unparalleled.

Bush called the United States Israel's "closest ally and best friend in the world." He embraced Jewish legend in vowing the Israel would never be defeated by its enemies. And he rejected suggestions that America's close links to Israel have done more harm than good.

"Israel's population may be just over 7 million," Bush said. "But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you."

Dromi called it "one of the strongest expressions of support for Israel ever."

"I've been around a long time, and I don't remember any American president expressing himself in such passion," said Dromi.

But some Israelis said the country shouldn't get too starry-eyed.

"It's very nice to hear that 7 million is 307 million," said Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel's spy agency. "The speechwriter did a good job, but this is not a sign of commitment. Let's be a little more level-headed when we try to count the dividends of such a statement."

As one of a small number of influential Israelis who have called on Israel to talk to Hamas, the Palestinian movement that won the last parliamentary elections and now controls Gaza, Halevy opted not to rebut Bush's suggestion that his actions were akin to World War II-era leaders who tried in vain to appease Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

"I think taking on the president of the United States is beyond my pay scale," he said.