Sharm el Sheik, Egypt 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."
Scattered applause followed, with barely a ripple of reaction later to his declaration than Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Bush arrived back in Washington late Sunday 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."