US President George W. Bush pivoted to the Arab side of the Middle East peace dispute yesterday and got a far less glowing reception from his Egyptian host — a key player in the long-running fight — than he did in Israel last week.
Bush opened two days of talks with a string of leaders in this Red Sea resort town by sitting down with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The two smiled and shook hands but said nothing to reporters.
Egypt was the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and has long been seen as a key mediator in the Middle East dispute that Bush has said he wants to solve by the time he leaves office in January.
But Egypt’s state-owned newspapers, which are run by government-appointed managers, greeted Bush with stinging criticism.
Bush is seen in the Arab world as tilting much too far toward Israel and Bush’s two-day stay in Israel last week seemed to reinforce that view.
In a much-anticipated speech on Thursday to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Bush showered Israel with praise, strongly reiterated its right to defend itself and only gently urged leaders to “make the hard choices necessary,” without mention of concrete steps.
By contrast, he did not visit the Palestinian territories nor mention the Palestinians’ plight. He spoke of them only in one sentence saying that Israel’s 120th anniversary — in 2068 — would see it neighboring an independent Palestinian state.
“Bush aims to do nothing but appeasing Israel,” wrote Mursi Atallah, the publisher of Al-Ahram, the flagship daily of the state-owned press.
An editorial in Al-Gomhouria, another Egyptian state-owned daily, described Bush as “a failed president who delivers nothing but a lousy speech.”
Akhbar Al-Youm also yesterday published a picture of Bush hugging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and captioned it “lovers.”
There was a similar reaction while Bush was in Saudi Arabia on Friday.
“We are all aware of the special US-Israeli relation and its political dimensions,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said. “It is, however, important also to affirm the legitimate and political rights of the Palestinian people.”
He also sharply criticized Israel for the “humanistic suffering weighed upon the West Bank and Gaza Strip population” of Palestinians.
He said Israel’s “continued policy of expanding settlements on Palestinian territories” undermines the peace process.
Bush was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas late yesterday.
Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating since December, but nothing visible has emerged from the process. Bush did no negotiating while in Israel and left the Holy Land with no new progress.
Mubarak, nearly three decades in power, could be an unlikely partner for Bush’s push to change that. Bush and Mubarak spent 90 minutes meeting and having lunch.
Over the past year, several independent newspaper editors in Egypt have been tried, some sentenced to prison, for anti-Mubarak writings.
The country’s most outspoken government critic, Egyptian-American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, has gone to the US for fear of arrest. He faces trial on accusations of harming national interests.
The Egyptian government also has waged a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of the Islamic fundamentalist group’s members.