JERUSALEM, May 14 – Visiting US President George W. Bush on Wednesday hailed Israel as a democracy battling "the forces of terror" just minutes before a rocket slammed into a shopping mall in the south of the country.
"It is also an interesting time because here we are in the heart of a thriving democracy yet that democracy, like other democracies, is being challenged by extremists and terrorists," Bush said after meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Shortly after those talks, a rocket fired by militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip slammed into a crowded shopping mall in southern Israel wounding at least 10 people, some critically, according to medics.
Bush’s three-day visit is anchored on Israel’s 60th anniversary. It comes at a time of renewed turmoil, which bodes ill for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have made little tangible progress since they were revived at a conference Bush hosted in November.
Lebanon is rocked by deadly sectarian fighting that Bush has blamed on Syria and Iran, Hamas has rejected Israeli conditions for a truce in the Gaza Strip and Olmert is embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Bush accused Iran of trying to destabilise Lebanon through its support for the Hezbollah militia as he reaffirmed support for Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
"Hezbollah is supported by Iran and this is an Iranian effort to destabilise that young democracy and the United States stands strongly with the Siniora government," Bush told Olmert.
Bush has voiced hope a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians will be achieved by the time he leaves office in January. He expressed strong backing for Israel, telling President Shimon Peres the United States must support its "strongest ally and friend in the Middle East, the only true democracy, against the forces of terror."
The US president will also visit Saudi Arabia to mark 75 years of US relations with the oil-rich kingdom, and hold talks in Egypt with regional leaders, including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The visit to Israel is Bush’s second since January — after seven years in which he did not set foot there or in the Palestinian territories.
He is due to address Israel’s parliament on Thursday, when Palestinians commemorate the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who lost their homes and their land when the Jewish state was created in May 1948.
Bush’s national security advisor Stephen Hadley called Israel’s 60th birthday "a great event" but added: "We also recognize that that event resulted in hardship for many Palestinian people."
He said Bush was determined to "redeem that hardship" by helping to create a Palestinian state, "a homeland for the Palestinian people in the same way that Israel 60 years ago became the homeland for the Jewish people."
The US president hopes a peace deal will shore up his legacy and has expressed confidence an agreement could be reached in the eight months left in his term despite the lack of any tangible progress in negotiations.
But Palestinians are concerned the Olmert affair could make Israel take a harder line regarding settlement building, lead to military escalation and further stall any peace talks.
Since Olmert and Abbas relaunched the peace process in November the talks have been hobbled by Israel’s continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and by escalating violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Four Palestinians were killed in Israeli military operations in Gaza on Wednesday morning, several hours before the rockets fired by militants in the besieged Palestinian territory hit the Ashkelon mall.
Both sides have talked separately to Egyptian mediators about a possible truce, but Hamas rejected Israel’s demand that it first release an Israeli soldier captured almost two years ago.
At a ceremony in Gaza marking six decades of what the Palestinians call the "Naqba" — Arabic for catastrophe — senior Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar said he did not welcome Bush or others "who want to please the American devil."
Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose nation backs Hezbollah, ridiculed Israel’s celebrations, saying that "throwing a birthday party for this regime is like having a birthday party for a dead person."