Bush contrasts Arab, Israeli paths

In speeches during his Mideast swing, the president lectured Arab regimes but praised Israel.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Tough love: At an economic summit in Egypt Sunday, Bush criticized Arab regimes for not spreading more freedom or isolating terror-supporting states.
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President Bush's just-completed trip to the Middle East might be summed up as a tale of two speeches.

On May 15, Mr. Bush talked about the historic ties between the US and Israel in a speech to the Israeli Knesset – and got warm applause in return.

On May 18, he talked about Arab political repression in an address to regional policymakers and business leaders at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt – and received, at best, a cool reception.

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Authoritarian Arab governments are not fond of being lectured to about democracy and women's rights, since it threatens their power, notes Gerald Hyman, president of the Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In their eyes, the US is in fact hesitant about full democracy in the region, since it might hand more power to Hamas and other groups hostile to the US and Israel.

Plus, every day they look at the example of their neighbor Iraq, where democracy does not seem to have brought political stability.

"There are just a whole bunch of things piled on top of one another that makes this subject from this president unpopular in the Arab world," says Mr. Hyman.

In some ways Bush's five-day trip to the region had the air of a valedictory appearance. The Middle East peace process is stuck in neutral, if not reverse, and both Israelis and Palestinians appear to be waiting to see what changes in US policy the next president might bring.

Israel has long considered Bush among the most pro-Israeli of recent US chief executives, so his enthusiastic reception there was not exactly a surprise. The biggest controversy to arise from his Israeli speech was not geostrategic, but domestic. Bush suggested that talking with dictators on its face was appeasement – a point that Sen. Barack Obama felt was a jab aimed at him, and with which he disagreed vigorously.

Bush's polite but unenthusiastic greeting from Arab nations was predictable, as well. Saudi Arabia, in general, rebuffed his pleas for help with soaring oil prices, though it did agree to a token increase in oil production. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sounded disappointed with the tone of Bush's Knesset appearance.

"In principle, the Bush speech at the Knesset angered us, and we were not happy with it," Mr. Abbas said Monday. "This is our position.... I frankly, clearly, and transparently asked him that the American position should be balanced."

In his May 18 speech to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, Bush mixed praise for the Arab world with a string of complaints about the public practices and admonishments to do better in the future.

"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the other in jail," said Bush.

That description might fit the situation of Egypt, the host of the conference. Ayman Nour, the main secular opposition candidate in Egypt's 2005 elections, was jailed on fraud charges after the vote. Bush said that he raised the case of Mr. Nour with President Hosni Mubarak in a private meeting on May 17.

"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," said Bush in his May 18 speech.

Bush also urged Arab leaders to open up more opportunities for women and to stand together against Iran's attempts to become a regional superpower.

Arab governments see a lack of engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a sign that the US only wants democracy on its own terms.

In addition, many of the nations in the region have sizable Shiite minorities and fear that a wider voting franchise could fuel already considerable Sunni-Shiite tensions.

With such militant groups as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon surging in power, much of the Middle East is now further from political and economic reform than it was in the early years of the George Bush presidency, note administration critics.

Over the last year the march of democracy has stalled in the Middle East, noted Freedom House in its recent annual report.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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