President Bush lectured the Arab world Sunday about everything from political repression to the denial of women's rights but ran into Palestinian complaints he is favoring Israel in stalled Mideast peace talks. "Freedom and peace are within your grasp," Bush said despite scant signs of progress.
Winding up a five-day trip to the region, Bush took a strikingly tougher tone with Arab nations than he did with Israel in a speech Thursday to the Knesset. Israel received effusive praise from the president while Arab nations heard a litany of U.S. criticisms mixed with some compliments.
"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said in a speech to 1,500 global policymakers and business leaders at this Red Sea beach resort. That was a clear reference to host Egypt, where main secular opposition figure Ayman Nour has been jailed and President Hosni Mubarak has led an authoritarian government since 1981.
"America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down and dissidents whose voices are stifled," Bush said.
"I call on all nations in this region to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate and trust their people to chart their future," Bush said.
Scattered applause followed, with barely a ripple of reaction later to his declaration than Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Little to show for trip
Bush headed back to Washington with little to show for the trip. Saudi Arabia rebuffed his plea for help with soaring oil prices, Egypt's leader questioned his seriousness about peacemaking and there was not enough progress in the peace talks to warrant a three-way meeting of Bush with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, did not conceal his disappointment over Bush's remarks to the Israeli parliament. The speech barely mentioned Palestinian hopes.
"We do not want the Americans to negotiate on our behalf," Abbas said Sunday after talks with Mubarak. "All that we want from them is to stand by (our) legitimacy and have a minimum of neutrality." Abbas had dinner Saturday with Bush.
"In principle, the Bush speech at the Knesset angered us, and we were not happy with it," Abbas said Sunday. "This is our position and we have a lot of remarks (about the speech) and I frankly, clearly and transparently asked him that the American position should be balanced."
Abbas told Israeli parliament member Yossi Beilin on Sunday he would resign if there was no substantial progress in peace talks over the next six months, according to the lawmaker's office.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on Air Force One with Bush returning to Washington, said there were serious peace negotiations going on in private and that she expected them to intensify in the months ahead. She said Bush inserted the wording in the speech that "I believe" the Palestinians will build a democracy, as a sign of his confidence that will happen.
As for Arab criticism Bush leans too far in supporting Israel, Rice said, "The president isn't pro this or pro that. The president is pro-democracy and pro-peace."
Bush's peace accord goal
The trip was Bush's second to the Mideast this year. His national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said Bush might return again before his term ends in January if "there is work for him to advance the peace process."
The White House made clear that Bush's goal for a peace accord before his leaves office does not mean it will be put into place by then or produce an immediate Palestinian state. "That would be a process that would take years," Hadley said.
Bush ended his visit with an address to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, an offshoot of the annual gathering of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland.
After talking privately with key leaders, the president in public touched only broadly on Mideast peacemaking. He did not suggest concrete steps to resolve the generations-old differences standing in the way of an agreement.
"Palestinians must fight terror and continue to build the institutions of a free and peaceful society," Bush said. "Israel must make tough sacrifices for peace, ease the restrictions on Palestinians. Arab states, especially oil-rich nations, must seize this opportunity to invest aggressively in the Palestinian people and to move past their old resentments against Israel."
"And all nations in the region must stand together in confronting Hamas, which is attempting to undermine efforts at peace with acts of terror and violence" from the Gaza Strip, Bush said. Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, controls that territory; the U.S.-backed Abbas is in charge of the West Bank.
The heart of Bush's speech was a warning that Mideast nations lag behind the developing world and cannot count on their oil wealth forever.
Bush urged countries to make their economies more diverse, open to free trade, with lower taxes and protection for intellectual property rights.
He called for political changes that bring competitive, legitimate elections where leaders are held to account and appealed to nations to push back against the negative influence of "spoilers" such as Iran and Syria.
Expansion of women's rights
He urged an expansion of women's rights as "a matter of morality and of basic math. No nation that cuts off half its population from opportunities will be as productive or prosperous as it could be. Women are a formidable force, as I have seen in my own family and my own administration."
At the same time, Bush hailed democratic advances in countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and Jordan and said, "The light of liberty is beginning to shine."
Bush's speech recalled his promise in his second inaugural address to work in every nation for "ending tyranny in our world." One of the obvious targets of his message was Egypt, the country hosting the conference.
Egypt has often been publicly singled out by his administration, especially in its early years, as a country that needs to do more in terms of political liberalization and democracy. Egypt did hold its first presidential elections in 2005 but pulled back following strong gains by the Muslim Brotherhood in later parliamentary elections.
In addition to Nour's jailing, independent newspaper editors were sentenced to prison for criticizing the president and his government, and hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood were put behind bars. Public criticism of Mubarak's government by the Bush administration, however, has been increasingly muted in recent years as the situation in Iraq worsened and worries grew over Iran, and as the U.S. sought Egypt's help on a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.
Bush said political changes must accompany economic ones in Egypt.