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Bush presses Arab leaders on reform
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt, May 18, 2008 - After a showy celebration of America's close ties with Israel, President George W. Bush presented Arab leaders with a lengthy to-do list on Sunday, telling them that if Middle East peace is to become a reality, they must expand their economies, offer equal opportunity to women and embrace democracy.
"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said in an address to the World Economic Forum here, adding, "The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve."
The speech, to an audience of diplomats, world leaders, policy makers and business executives attending the forum in this Red Sea resort town, wrapped up a five-day Middle East tour that also took Bush to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It was meant as a book-end to an address Bush delivered last week to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.
The White House had billed the Middle East trip as a mix of symbolism and substance, and said Bush would use his time in the region to shore up the faltering Arab-Israeli peace talks. But the president's three-day stay in Jerusalem, including tours of Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, a private viewing of the Dead Sea scrolls and a host of laudatory exchanges between Bush and Israeli leaders, drew sharp criticism in the Arab world, where he was accused of being insensitive to Palestinian concerns.
Here in Sharm el Sheikh, Bush tried to soften that impression. He hosted a series of back-to-back meetings with regional leaders — including those from Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan — a spectacular villa, with stone walkways lined by pink and red bougainvillea, overlooking a kidney-shaped pool and the sparkling Red Sea beyond.
Emerging from a session with president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Saturday afternoon, Bush said he told Abbas that he is "absolutely committed" to a Palestinian state.
"It breaks my heart to see the vast potential of the Palestinian people really wasted," Bush said, with Abbas by his side. "They're god, smart, capable people that when given a chance will build a thriving homeland."
Yet Bush's speech Sunday afternoon seemed to chide as much as reassure.
"In our democracy, we would never punish a person for owning a Koran," Bush said, at one point, taking aim at those who, he said, claim democracy and Islam are incompatible. "And we would never issue a death sentence to someone for converting to Islam. Democracy does not threaten Islam or any other religion. Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection."
At another point, the president warned that Middle Eastern economies would not thrive unless opportunities are offered to women. "This is a matter of morality and basic math," he said.
And after unsuccessfully trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase oil production enough to cause a drop in gasoline prices in the United States, Bush had a message for oil-producing nations that as America and other countries look to alternative forms of energy, the market for Middle East oil would diminish, forcing countries here to diversify their economies.
The speech stood in stark contrast to the one Bush delivered to Israeli lawmakers, although he tried to link the two. In the first speech, timed to coincide with the 60th birthday of Israel, Bush outlined his vision for the Middle East on Israel's on its 120th birthday. He used some of the same language on Sunday, repeating certain passages word for word and telling his audience that his vision "is not a Jewish vision or a Muslim vision, not an American vision or an Arab vision – it is a universal vision."
The trip was Bush's second to the region in five months, and his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters that one reason for the speech was "to give some hope" that progress toward peace is possible. Many analysts say the most Bush can hope for is to hand off a working peace process to his successor, and are skeptical about Bush's pronouncements that the contours of a Palestinian state can be defined before he leaves office.
But Hadley insisted progress, though quiet, is occurring, and hinted Bush might return to the region before his term is over.
"The president will come back here," Hadley said, "when there is work for him to do."
Source: International Herald Tribune