Tobias Buck
The Financial Times
January 8, 2008 - 6:11pm

George W. Bush arrives in Israel on Wednesday in the ­twilight of his presidency, with his international clout diminished by the war in Iraq and his popular support eroded both at home and abroad.

In Israel, however, the US president will be greeted with nothing but adulation and gratitude. From the prime minister downwards, Israelis continue to hold Mr Bush in high esteem, thanks to his unwavering support for the country in its struggle with Arab neighbours and militant Palestinian forces.

Analysts say his popularity is founded on close ­personal ties between the president and successive Israeli leaders and on a common understanding of the broader conflict in the ­Middle East that defines the Arab-Israeli struggle as part of Mr Bush’s “war on ­terror”.

On the question of Israeli claims to Palestinian land occupied after the 1967 war, Mr Bush has been more supportive than any of his predecessors, arguing in a crucial letter three years ago that it was “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return fully to the pre-1967 border. In the same letter he handed Israel another key concession, when he called for Palestinian refugees to be settled in a future Palestinian state, ruling out the possibility of their return to Israel.

But at the same time, Israeli analysts and officials point to at least three issues that may yet cloud the special relationship between the US and its closest Middle Eastern ally in the months and years ahead.

There are concerns that the US administration might finally begin to exert pressure on Israel to adopt a more compromising line in peace talks with the Palestinians; fears over a divergence on policy towards Iran; and, not least, lingering doubts over whether Mr Bush’s successor – due to take office early next year – will be equally supportive of Israeli policies.

“Bush is very popular. Israelis really appreciate Bush’s approach and his very clear support for Israel,” says Gabriel Sheffer, a professor of political sciences at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

In an interview last week, Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, called Mr Bush “a giant friend of ours. He’s not doing a single thing that I don’t agree to. He doesn’t support anything that I oppose. He doesn’t say a thing that he thinks will make life harder for Israel.”

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, says: “It is a very good relationship – predicated on a joint vision of the Middle East arena and on a very good personal relationship between the prime minister and the president.

“But it is not a perfect relationship,” he says, with the recent US intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear ­programme – which held that Iran abandoned covert efforts to build nuclear weapons in 2003 – creating “confusion and puzzlement in Israel regarding the direction of US policy”.

Israel continues to see Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state and policymakers fear the US might adopt a less belligerent approach to Tehran. Israeli officials are expected to present the president with their own analysis of Iran’s nuclear intentions.

White House officials say Mr Bush will seek to rally opinion against Iran when he visits Arab countries – but the president has admitted that “it’s harder [to do so] after the report”.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in Annapolis in November could be another flashpoint. “It is bound to create some tension with Israel. When the US becomes a broker it has to lean on the parties, and that includes leaning on Israel,” Mr Rabinovich says.

Mr Bush is expected to press Mr Olmert to dismantle settlement “outposts”, that have been erected without the legal backing of the Israeli government.


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