TEL AVIV, Israel – President Bush on Wednesday opened a celebratory visit to Israel where he'll make a new push for peace in the long-troubled Middle East. "We consider the Holy Land a very special place, and we consider the Israeli people our close friends," Bush said.
The president arrived in Tel Aviv, then flew by helicopter to Jerusalem for events Wednesday and Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of Israel's birth in the wake of the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews.
"Our two nations both faced great challenges when they were founded," he said. "And our two nations have both relied on the same principles to help us succeed. We built strong democracies to protect the freedoms given to us by an almighty God. ... and we built an enduring alliance to confront terrorists and tyrants."
First on his itinerary were meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who greeted he and first lady Laura Bush at Ben Gurion International Airport. Bush reached in to give a hug to Olmert, who is the target of a corruption investigation.
"Let's go to work," Bush said as he walked to a podium, chatting with the two Israeli leaders about the weather and last weekend's wedding of Bush's daughter, Jenna.
The entire Israeli Cabinet also greeted Bush. They lined up and he shook their hands one by one.
"Good to be back," Bush told a member of the welcoming delegation, referring to his visit to Israel in January. "Thanks for coming out to say hello," he said to another.
Bush is set to speak Wednesday night at a conference in Jerusalem celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary. The conference, convened by Peres, includes international figures like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and an array of Jewish Nobel laureates, including writer and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel.
"We are proud to reaffirm the friendship of our peoples," Bush said.
Both Peres and Olmert warmly thanked Bush for strengthening ties with the United States, Israel's closest ally.
"Your presence here permits us to do something we really want to do and that is to celebrate a real thanksgiving party for the United States, from the depths of our heart, expressing our thanks to you and the greatest phenomenon in human history, the United States of America," Peres said.
Olmert underscored the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relations.
"Throughout the years, the strategic alliance with America has become one of the fundamental pillars of our national security. The bond between our people has grown deeper and stronger with time," Olmert said. "America has been there at each and every important crossroad in the life of our young country and stood by us in times of hope and moments of crisis."
He said Bush's decision to celebrate Israel's historic milestone was an extraordinary gesture of friendship.
"It's further evidence of your unending commitment to the security and well being of our country," he said.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley suggested that Bush might acknowledge the Palestinian role when marking the Jewish state's birthday. "We are going to Israel to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, and that is a great event," he said. "We also recognize that resulted in hardship for many Palestinian people."
Bush has expressed some optimism that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be struck before his term ends while holding out little hope for a major breakthrough during this trip. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that reaching such a deal within the next eight months "might be improbable but it's not impossible."
The Palestinians are marking the 60th anniversary of the "nakba," or catastrophe, the word they use to describe Israel's establishment. Israel has imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip during Bush's visit, preventing Palestinians from entering the country. Normally, tens of thousands of Palestinians are permitted into Israel each day for work, health care and family visits.
At the Qalandia military checkpoint next to Jerusalem, a few dozen Palestinians threw stones at Israeli police. Police said they responded with riot control tactics, and the force was seen firing tear gas at the crowd.
After Israel, Bush will go to Saudi Arabia where he promises to press King Abdullah to increase oil production to ease soaring costs on consumers. Bush made a similar plea in January but it was ignored.
As Bush prepared to leave Washington, Senate Democrats introduced a resolution that would block $1.4 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh agrees to increase its oil production by 1 million barrels per day.
The Democrats said they introduced the measure to coincide with Bush's trip to send a message to Saudi Arabia that it should pump more oil to reduce the cost of gas for Americans.
The president's final stop will be at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he will meet over two days with a handful of leaders: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Iraqi leaders. Bush also is scheduled to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, but that is in doubt now after clashes between the U.S.-backed government in Beirut and Hezbollah-led opposition.