Bush denounces extremists in the Middle East

President Bush on Thursday criticized the deadly tactics of extremist groups like al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas and said he looks toward the day when Muslims "recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause."

In a speech prepared for delivery to the Knesset, or parliament, Bush pledged that the United States has an unbreakable bond with Israel, reported AP.

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

Bush took special aim at Iran and said the United States stands with Israel in opposing moves by Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons.

"Permitting the world's leading sponsor of terror to possess the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations," the president said. "For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

Bush previously has set a goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before the end of his term. But with just eight months remaining in his presidency, Bush's speech offered no suggestions on how to resolve the thorniest disputes over the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and its contested holy sites and the rights of Palestinians to return to land inside present-day Israel.

There was only one mention of the Palestinians in all of Bush's prepared remarks and no timetable for achieving a Palestinian state. The only reference came in a passage envisioning the future of Israel 60 years from now.

"Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary as one of the world's great democracies, a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people," Bush said. "The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved a democratic state that is governed by law, respects human rights, and rejects terror.

"From Cairo and Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies, where a desire for peace is reinforced by ties of diplomacy, tourism, and trade. Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations, where today's oppression is a distant memory and people are free to speak their minds and develop their talents. And al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause."

The president also was meeting Thursday with international Mideast envoy Tony Blair for an update on progress for improving Palestinian civic institutions and economic conditions.

Here to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel's birth, Bush said that "the joy of independence was tempered by the outbreak of a battle, a struggle that has continued for six decades. Yet in spite of the violence, in defiance of the threats, Israel has built a thriving democracy in the heart of the Holy Land."

The effort to reach an accord this year seemed increasingly unlikely even before Bush's trip. And fresh difficulties greeted him upon arrival, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert weakened by a widening corruption probe, talk of possible new settlement activity in the West Bank and new bursts of violence, including a jarring rocket attack by Hamas on a crowded shopping center in southern Israel and a deadly Israeli military raid into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.

"This struggle is waged with the technology of the 21st century, but at its core it is the ancient battle between good and evil," Bush said. "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."

Bush said that those who carry out such violent acts are serving only 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," Bush said. "That is why the founding charter of Hamas calls for the `elimination' of Israel. That is why the followers of Hezbollah 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."

Before his scheduled speech to the Knesset, Bush toured Masada, the ancient fortress on a plateau in the desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is said to be the place where Jewish rebels killed themselves and each other 2,000 years ago rather than fall into slavery under the Romans.

The dramatic story has played an important role in Israel's national mythology. Remains were recognized as Jewish heroes by Israel's government in 1969, complete with a state burial, and army units used to be sworn in on the mountaintop to cries of "Masada will not fall again." More recently, the suicide story has come into doubt and Israelis have become less comfortable in any case with glorifying mass suicide and identifying with religious fanatics.

Bush took a hair-raising cable car ride up the side of the cliff and past ruins of camps that the Romans used in their three-month siege of the Jewish fortress. Once atop the plateau, Bush and first lady Laura Bush, accompanied by Olmert, strolled through the rocky, sun-baked area. They viewed a 29-room storeroom complex, famous frescoes, a large bathhouse, synagogue and a Byzantine church. The Masada is the last stronghold of the Jews against the Romans. Its violent destruction brought about the end of the kingdom of Judea.

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