Three scant weeks before the Winograd Commission issues its final report, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received a noteworthy boost of support from visiting US President George W. Bush.
Olmert is "a strong political leader," said Bush at a dinner party with cabinet ministers, as well as Olmert and his wife Aliza. The US President called on Olmert's deputies and coalition leaders to safeguard Olmert so that he could continue to lead.
Deputy Prime Minister and Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, who attended the event, forwarded a letter from Shas spiritual leader the Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to Bush. Yosef asked the president to free jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
Yosef's plea was sent along with a letter from Pollard's wife Esther, asking Bush to pardon her husband, who has been incarcerated for 22 years.
During the dinner Yishai said that Israel "must not make peace with only half of the Palestinian people. We saw what happened when we left Gaza, once we left Hamas came in. We must not accept a similar occurrence in the West Bank. Israel's security must not be compromised and Jerusalem must not be compromised.
"We seek peace, but we must not forfeit our security. The problem with Hamas is that their objective is to destroy Israel." The minister also noted the difficult situation in Sderot, the threat of al-Qaeda and the
During the event Bush also requested an unscheduled private meeting with Olmert to work out several pressing matters, the two held their tête-à-tête in Olmert's den at his Jerusalem residence.
Bush: End Israeli occupation
Bush notably hardened his tone towards Israel earlier in the day, urging an end to Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank.
"The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue. The Palestinian people deserve it… There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967," Bush said. He had earlier met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and visited Bethlehem, also in the West Bank.
Bush pressed the Palestinians to rein in attacks against Israel. He said any negotiations must also ensure Israel has "secure, recognised and defensible borders" alongside a "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent" Palestine.
Challenging skeptics of his new push for peace on the first US presidential visit to Ramallah, he told a news conference with Abbas: "I believe it's going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office."
Bush said he had urged Abbas and Olmert "to make sure their teams negotiate seriously, starting right now." He also reaffirmed a US commitment to the 2003 Road Map.
"On the Israeli side, that includes ending settlement expansion and removing unauthorised outposts. On the Palestinian side that includes confronting terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure," the president said.
"Security is fundamental. No agreement and no Palestinian state will be born of terror. I reaffirm America's steadfast commitment to Israel's security."
News agencies contributed to this report