WASHINGTON – Cheered with chants of "four more years," President Bush told a Jewish audience Tuesday that Israel "has every right to defend itself from terror" and that Palestinians must renounce violence and reject failed leaders.
Bush made only a passing reference to violence in the Gaza Strip (search), where Israeli helicopters pounded a refugee camp Tuesday and killed at least 12 Palestinians. "The unfolding violence in the Gaza Strip is troubling and underscores the need for all parties to seize every opportunity for peace," he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), who has called publicly for Israel to stop demolishing Palestinian homes and has questioned whether it helps make Israel secure, set up a meeting with Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (search), who was in Washington for a speech Monday night to the pro-Israel lobby.
Olmert, in the speech, was calling on Palestinians "of good will" to select leaders who will not tolerate terror and are ready to engage Israeli in peace talks. Israel wants an end to the stalemate, he said.
The president got two dozen standing ovations in an address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group whose political support has been courted by the administration, particularly as Bush faces re-election.
Jewish voters preferred Democrat Al Gore (search) over Bush by a 4-to-1 margin in 2000, but Bush's political advisers think even a slight increase in support among Jewish voters could help the Republican incumbent in what they expect to be another tight election.
The president used the occasion to reflect on the war against terror and U.S. efforts in Iraq in the face of increased bloodshed. He said violence would increase as the June 30 deadline approaches for the transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to an interim Iraqi government.
Bush said insurgents were trying to undermine the will of the coalition and drive it out before democracy takes hold in Iraq.
"It's a historic moment," he said. "The world watches for weakness in our resolve. They will see no weakness. We will answer every challenge. Iraq will be free and Iraq will be a democratic nation."
Bush has earned a reputation as a strong backer of Israel, but his speech came at a sensitive time as his administration issues unusual warnings to Israel.
Both Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) have expressed concern about a recent Israeli offensive that has demolished homes in the Gaza Strip. Bush addressed the issue in one sentence, in which he called the violence troubling.
But he spoke strongly in support of Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan for withdrawal of military installations and settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank although hard-liners in Sharon's own Likud party rejected the idea.
"The United States is strongly committed — and I am strongly committed — to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state," Bush said. "Israel is a democracy and a friend and has every right to defend itself from terror."
He said the United States was committed to helping the Palestinian people establish a viable, democratic state but said, "Israel needs a truly responsible partner in achieving peace." Bush said Sharon's plan gives the Palestinians "a chance to take bold steps" toward peace.
"The Palestinian people must reject corrupt and failed leaders and insist on a leadership committed to reform and progress and peace," the president said. "They must renounce terror and violence that frustrate their aspirations and take so many innocent lives."
Palestinians said they have urged action to stop Israel's demolition of homes in the coastal strip and received a pledge that "the Americans will act now to stop what is going on in Rafah," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said. Rice stopped short of confirming that, but said the United States repeatedly raised concerns with Israel that the demolitions of Palestinian homes were "not conducive" to peace.
Lawrence Grossman, editor of the American Jewish Yearbook, published by the American Jewish Committee, said Bush seems intent on winning a larger share of the Jewish vote."
Exit polling showed Jewish voters constituted about 4 percent of the electorate in 2000.
Grossman said Jewish voters are concentrated in three states that Bush most wants to win, including Florida, with 620,000; Pennsylvania, with 282,000; and Ohio, with 149,000.
The disputed 2000 election was decided in Florida by 537 votes. Bush narrowly won Ohio, and lost Pennsylvania.
Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Boca Raton, Fla., last Friday to tell the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach that the administration would remain a strong ally of Israel.