JERUSALEM - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sunday dove into one of the world's most tangled political crises, expressing his support for embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and facing down pro-Arab protesters at a speech here.
On the second day of a 48-hour trip to Israel - his first venture abroad as governor - Schwarzenegger at times behaved almost like a president, inserting himself into charged debates even as aides insisted the trip was apolitical.
Schwarzenegger scheduled the trip more than a year ago to promote a Museum of Tolerance planned for downtown Jerusalem by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where Schwarzenegger has been a longtime donor. On Sunday afternoon, the governor headlined a gala introduction of the museum's design by architect Frank Gehry.
The rest of the day, he trod the well-worn path that most dignitaries take when they visit Israel. He met with Sharon and a few other top officials and laid a wreath in the Yad V'ashem Holocaust Memorial Hall of Remembrance.
But when questioned by reporters - especially a roiling pack of Israeli journalists tailing him in hopes of squeezing comments from the officials with whom he had met - Schwarzenegger wasted no time taking sides on issues other governors would likely leave alone.
Asked at a photo opportunity in Sharon's offices what tips he has for the prime minister - whose government was shaken late Sunday when it lost a referendum on Sharon's most recent peace plan - Schwarzenegger leapt to Sharon's defense.
"I think the prime minister is extremely experienced," Schwarzenegger said. "I don't think he needs my advice." Then he addressed the referendum, in which Likud Party members were deciding whether to endorse Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
"I hope the election turns out the way (a recent champ ionship Israeli basketball game) turned out: a great victory," Schwarzenegger said, grinning broadly.
Israelis seemed unsure what to make of the governor's cheerful plunge into impromptu diplomacy. Many, including the Israeli journalists, said Schwarzenegger is known in Israel primarily as an actor. His governorship is widely considered a California oddity.
As the day wore on, however, crowds warmed to Schwarzenegger's eagerness to flatter their homeland.
"When he became governor, no one knew what to expect," said 18-year-old Joshua Weynner, who joined a crowd of hundreds at the museum. Schwarzenegger's "visit shows he cares about the issues. He seems to be on the Jews' side," Weynner said.
Such gestures are important in Israel, where minor social nuances are pored over for clues to officials' sympathies - especially American officials, Weynner said.
"Anything America does ends up having an impact in Israel,'' he said.
Emotions were charged at Schwarzenegger's events in the wake of news that Palestinian gunmen had shot and killed a mother and her four children Sunday morning near Gaza. Rumors flew about the shooting's effect on the referendum.
As Schwarzenegger in a gracefully worded speech vowed that the Museum of Tolerance would establish "covenant with Israel," hecklers leapt up to condemn Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian territories. Others countered with shouts against Sharon's plan. Security officials forced one man out.
"I was trying to shut Arnold Schwarzenegger up," said Alan Steinberg of Jerusalem, who had denounced Sharon's plan. "We shouldn't give away Gaza to say the terrorists have won.''
Schwarzenegger gave the demonstrators a thumbs up and kept talking.
"You know what moves me most when I see the plans for this museum with all its optimism and light?" he asked the crowd. "I think to myself, 'If only those who were crammed into the dark boxcars and crowded bunks (during the Holocaust) could ... see us gathered together here in Jerusalem in the heart of a free, Democratic Israel.' "
Though he departs today for lunch with the king of Jordan and a subsequent meeting with wounded troops at an American air base in Germany, Schwarzenegger promised this visit would not be his last.
"Let us rejoice in the words of the Psalms," he told the museum audience: "Tears may begin at nightfall, but joy comes in the morning. Let the joy of the morning break over Israel. Thank you very much, thank you. And I'll be back!"