Two Audiences, Two Speeches

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, May 19, 2008

SHARM-EL-SHEIKH, Egypt The adage that all politics is local never seemed as true as it did last week, when President Bush spent five days dashing through the Middle East. A voyage that, from the White House point of view, was aimed largely at celebrating ties with two different but venerable allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, became a trip about an appeasement comment and U.S. gas prices in the narrative of the media.

Despite the transitory headlines, the lasting impact of the trip will almost certainly lie in the Middle East. Particularly noteworthy, it seemed, were Bush's two big speeches -- one Thursday to the Israeli Knesset, when he paid homage to the survival of the Jewish state after 60 years, identified with its approach to combating terrorism and vowed to be always by its side.

The address was filled with powerful and emotional language, no more so than near the beginning, when the president gamely managed to say in Hebrew "Yom Ha'atzmaut Sameach"("Happy Independence Day"), touching off a delirious uproar among the 1,000 or so guests crammed into the tiny chamber.

To Israeli and Arab ears alike, Bush seemed to be saying that although he may be committed in his mind to achieving a Palestinian state, in his heart his sympathies are with the residents of this tiny sliver of land surrounded by potential adversaries.

That implied message was not received well by Palestinians or in the broader Arab world, and Bush seemed to complement the message Sunday with a much more forceful endorsement of the Palestinian cause, as well as a summing-up of his ambitious democratic vision for the Middle East. "We must stand with the Palestinian people, who have suffered for decades and earned the right to have a homeland of their own," Bush told the World Economic Forum at this Red Sea resort.

He also had pointed words for the Israelis that he avoided in the Knesset: "Israel must make tough sacrifices for peace and ease restrictions on Palestinians."

How all this will play out as Bush's peace process enters its final months is uncertain. The White House view is that he has built substantial capital with both sides, and that Israelis and Palestinians have reason to try to make a deal with this president rather than wait for the next.

We will probably know the outlook by fall. Speculation in Jerusalem was that Bush will return in October, this time to try to push the parties over the finish line, and the White House was not discouraging that view Sunday.

Present and Accounted For

The last time Bush was in Israel, in January, it felt like more of a working visit. There were news conferences and consultations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Although Bush did have meetings with Israeli officials last week, this visit had more of a ceremonial feel -- no surprise given the main reason Bush was in Jerusalem was to mark Israel's 60th birthday.

To help celebrate, he brought along a sizable delegation of prominent American Jews, political supporters and leaders of many U.S. mainstream Jewish groups.

Among the buddies present were a number of big-time Republican donors who accompanied Bush on his first trip to Israel in 1998, when, as Texas governor, he took that famous helicopter ride over the country with then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon. These include Houston businessman Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; Florida developer Mel Sembler; and the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Cliff Sobel.

A couple of Hollywood actors showed up for the festivities: When Bush arrived Thursday to speak at the Knesset, one guest drawing attention was Jon Voight of "Midnight Cowboy" fame (or, perhaps more aptly, father of Angelina Jolie). He wasn't in the delegation, and it wasn't clear why Voight was there, but others in the audience definitely wanted their picture taken with him.

Also present was actor Ron Silver, who actually was a member of the honorary delegation. That probably made it one of the rare times the Knesset has been graced by the presence of another prominent American Jew, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, and an actor who played him in a movie ("Reversal of Fortune.")

Thursday night, Bush delivered on perhaps the one perk available to the delegates. That was an invitation to an elaborate reception in the sculpture garden at the Israeli Museum, home of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and the rare Isaiah Scroll, which has been brought out especially for the 60th anniversary and is not yet open to the public.

Betting on Israel

Practically ubiquitous during the Bush visit was Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, an emerging behind-the-scenes force in conservative politics in the United States and in Israel. Adelson bankrolls a new newspaper that is making waves in Israel by regularly attacking the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He is the money behind Freedom's Watch, which supports candidates who favor a muscular foreign policy -- and a major philanthropic donor in Israel.

Bush seemed happy to see Adelson when he showed up for the big 60th anniversary celebration in Jerusalem Wednesday night, making a point of shaking his hand and kissing his wife, Miriam. Adelson hosted Bush at a Nevada political fundraiser earlier this year.

Adelson had the misfortune to be present in Israel during the police investigation of possible political corruption by Olmert. The authorities questioned Adelson about the case but do not regard him as a suspect, according to Israeli newspapers.

As in the United States, Adelson is apparently a controversial figure in Israel. He had a prominent place in the festivities last week because he helped fund the President's Conference hosted by Shimon Peres, which provoked some grumbling by a columnist in the newspaper Haaretz. "[It] is still hard to understand how, of all the Jews who have contributed to [Israel's] well-being over the decades, the casino tycoon was the one deserving of attention," wrote Anshel Pfeffer.

Up Close and Personal

Another difference between this Middle East trip and the last one was the presence of first lady Laura Bush. She accompanied the president to some of the big ceremonial events but also maintained her own schedule.

In Jerusalem, the first lady was joined by Aliza Olmert, wife of the prime minister, and Noa Meridor, wife of the Israeli ambassador to Washington, on a tour of the Western Wall tunnels, as well as a visit to "Hand in Hand" school, which educates Arab and Israeli children in Arabic and Hebrew.

The first lady also visited the King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh to talk about U.S.-Saudi efforts to collaborate on preventing breast cancer, a cause she promoted when visiting Saudi Arabia last fall. She did join the president for what turned out to be a lively discussion between Bush and a dozen young Israelis. They included a 16-year-old Palestinian Christian girl, Henriette Charcar, who challenged Bush over linking Muslims to extremism in his speeches.

"Actually, what I say is you're not a religious person if you're a murderer," Bush replied. "But you're right. I've got to do a better job of making it clear when I talk about Islam I talk about a peaceful religion, which I talk about a lot."

Although the discussion was largely serious, Bush kidded a 17-year-old boy who said he is a judo instructor and guitarist and arrived in a Western-style short-sleeve shirt with snaps. "Where'd you get the snap shirt, man?" he asked Jonathan Blumenfeld.

Jonathan said he had been warned that Bush would tease him about his shirt, and was worried because everyone else arrived in business shirts. "No, you look good, man," Bush said.

The president also displayed a certain ignorance of cultural norms when he asked if Arabs and Jews date, or go to dances. "No dances?" he asked, sounding surprised. U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones explained that it was a more conservative society in Israel.

Quote of the Week

Questioner: "First of all, congratulations on your daughter's wedding this weekend."

Bush: "Thank you. It was -- as my Jewish friends tell me, there was mazel tov."

-- From an interview by Israeli Channel 10

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company