JERUSALEM (MCT) As part of a late-term press for an elusive peace, President Bush returned to the Mideast on Wednesday but was greeted by a Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli shopping center and a warning by Israeli leaders that they may deploy "the military power that Israel has in its pocket to use in a serious manner."
Welcomed as "an unusual friend of the people of Israel," Bush arrived in Jerusalem to help the country celebrate its 60th anniversary and praised the Jewish nation as "a prosperous, hopeful land" that had accomplished much while "surrounded by hostile forces."
But the president began only his second visit to Israel in nearly eight years as president and perhaps his last before stepping down in January against a backdrop of sober questions about his legacy as an agent of peacemaking and about the potential for the Israeli-Palestinian accord he seeks by the end of the year.
Starting with his declaration of the need for an independent Palestinian state in 2002 Bush is the first American president to do so the White House maintains that Bush methodically pursued policies that have led to the negotiations now under way toward the contours of a Palestinian state.
Yet questions about the administration's focus, the slow pace of the talks, the unrelenting violence surrounding them and the inability of weakened leaders to deliver serious concessions has cast serious doubt about resolving anything here before Bush leaves office.
"I would say, in this period of time, the president was working in a concrete way to put into place the building blocks for the establishment of a Palestinian state, a two-state solution and a broader peace," Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, told reporters en route to Israel aboard Air Force One. "Were there setbacks in this period? Absolutely, you bet."
Even as Bush and Israeli leaders met in Jerusalem on Wednesday, a rocket struck a shopping mall in Ashkelon, about six miles north of the Gaza Strip, wounding at least 14 people. Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened an anniversary-related evening gala with an announcement of the day's attack by Palestinian militants in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
"What happened today is entirely intolerable and unacceptable," Olmert said at the gala, with Bush in attendance. "The government of Israel is committed to stopping it, and we will take the necessary steps so that this will stop."
Even before the attack, Olmert had delivered a stern warning to the militants: "We hope that we will not have to act against Hamas with the military power that Israel has in its pocket to use in a serious manner in order to stop it."
Bush made no direct reference to the attack at the anniversary celebration, but said: "As we stand in peace, we must understand the realities of the world in which we live ... We must be steadfast and we must be strong in the face of those who murder ... to achieve their objectives."
Olmert, under the shadow of a new scandal in which he has denied allegations of bribery, embraced Bush at the event, telling him, "You are an unusual person. You are an unusual leader. And you are an unusual friend of the people of Israel." The president, clearly emotional, received an ovation from the crowd.
But many Israeli and Palestinian commentators are calling the Bush visit more symbolic than substantive, a reflection of what many in the region view as his administration's limited engagement over the years in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush so far has left "a very mixed legacy" in the Middle East, according to Itamar Rabinovich, an expert on the region at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.
Bush correctly identified the Iranian threat, tried to promote democracy, backed a moderate government in Lebanon and toppled a tyrant in Iraq, Rabinovich said, but "there was no follow-through."
"He began his term by distancing himself from high-level involvement in the peace process, dealing with Iraq and Iran, on the assumption that once you do that, matters in the Arab-Israeli arena will fall into place," Rabinovich said. "He belatedly began dealing with the Palestinian issue, but it was more administering first aid rather than anything serious."
The current visit comes "too late," Rabinovich said. "People don't do business with outgoing presidents."
Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to Washington and a foreign-policy adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party, said that Bush set unrealistic goals at a peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in November where Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to work for a peace treaty by the end of this year.
"It became clear very early on that there won't be a final agreement," Shoval said. "It means all sorts of expectations will be raised and it could lead to greater frustration and violence than before."
On the Palestinian side, where Israel's birthday is marked as the naqba, or disaster, analysts criticize what they view as the Bush administration's pronounced bias in favor of the Israelis, which they say has prevented Washington from applying the pressures necessary to move peace talks forward.
Bush "may have been willing to help reach a settlement but he did not use his capabilities to force such a settlement," said Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. Hadley contended that the Bush administration was dealt a tough hand following the breakdown of peace talks at the end of the administration of Bill Clinton and the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000.
He said the president initially staked out his support for Israel's right to defend itself. Bush then articulated his vision for a "two-state solution" in 2002, and the next year, outlined a so-called "road map for peace," requiring concessions from both sides.
By 2004, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. But then, in December of 2006, Hamas prevailed in Palestinian parliamentary elections and later seized control of Gaza.
"That's where we are now," Hadley says. "There are ups and downs ... We continue to be hopeful."