At the start of his Middle East trip, US President George W. Bush gave Israel glowing praise. As it ended yesterday, the president gave the Arab world a stern lecture: Isolate state sponsors of terror and give citizens more freedoms.
“Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail,” Bush said at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East.
“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,” he said.
Bush’s address to hundreds of global policymakers and business leaders gathered at Sharm el-sheik was his finishing touch on a five-day Middle East trip to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The speech, and Bush’s second Middle East trip this year, came eight months before the end of his presidency, his target date for reaching a sweeping peace agreement that would resolve generations-old grievances and create a Palestinian state.
The president counseled Arab states to “move past their old resentments against Israel” and “invest aggressively” in the Palestinian people.
Bush has tried to talk more about the Palestinians’ plight while in Egypt than he did in Israel. He also offered plenty of praise for democratic advances, naming countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and Jordan.
“The light of liberty is beginning to shine,” he said.
Bush’s address was meant by the White House as the twin to the president’s speech on Thursday before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
In that speech, 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. He did not 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.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Bush directly about his concerns with the Knesset speech when the two met on Saturday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
“We said that it was disappointing and a missed opportunity, because you [Bush] could have said that the Palestinian people should have their freedom and independence in order to achieve peace in the entire area,’’ he said.
Erekat said Bush responded in the private meeting by saying he was the first US president to endorse an independent Palestinian state and that he would spare no efforts to achieve the goal.