In Mideast, Bush presses Arabs on peace

In his first trip to the region, Bush meets today with Arab leaders to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian road map.

After engaging in the usual diplomatic niceties at the start of today's US-Arab summit, President Bush will get down to the business of persuading Arab allies to get on board Washington's new peace and reform train.

Meeting at an ultramodern resort here on the Red Sea, Mr. Bush will press Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain to find new ways to cut financial aid to "terrorist" groups that, he argues, aim to undermine the US and European-backed road map for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In return, Bush will ask Arab leaders for their views on how to proceed - and at what speed.

Bush arrives fresh from a military victory in Iraq, bolstered by new Saudi empathy for the war on terror and Arab recognition that the president is now personally involved in the Mideast peace effort. As a result, he is likely to find ready ears and tactful nods as he embarks upon what Arab analysts are calling "the first leg of Mr. Bush's Mideast Odyssey."

Yet behind the smiles in Sharm El-Sheikh are longstanding political tensions that many Arabs believe have been exacerbated by Bush's recent and aggressive posturing in the region.

"Arab leaders are not opposing President George Bush and his bold plans for the region," says Ahmed Abulkheir, an Egyptian international-affairs consultant and former ambassador. He says Arab leaders won't back Bush against a wall to vent misgivings about the war or even their steadfast belief that Israeli military tactics are the root cause of Islamic terror. "They know Mr. Bush is coming with a gun in his hand, and they know what happened in Iraq, even though they don't like it."

Still, Arab leaders are likely to caution Bush to ease his aggressive posturing towards Islamic states like Iran and Syria and lean heavily on a man many of them still consider the greatest obstacle to peace: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

With the President of Egypt and the monarchs of Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia listening, analysts say Bush will be making his pleas to a small and elite Arab "coalition of the willing" that he can use to pressure Palestinian leaders to crack down on terror in their own backyard. Notably absent from the talks will be leaders from states like Syria and Libya.

But even for so-called "Arab moderates" at Sharm El-Sheikh, doubts and fears about what the US president really plans to do in the region have increased dramatically in the wake of the war in Iraq, says Mr. Abulkheir. "The sense is that Mr. Bush will use his guns when he is opposed," he says.

The Bush administration appears ready to acknowledge, however, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian process - or at least actively engaging in it - is one way of dispelling these Arab doubts.

In an interview with CNN International in Manila Sunday, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that moving ahead with the road map for peace in the Middle East could go a long way toward dispelling false notions of "injustice" in US foreign policy and that "we are one sided in our dealings."

Even normally pessimistic Arab analysts now say there is a new mood of cautious optimism - a sense that Bush may finally be waking up to the realization that by addressing the violence in Israel and Palestine, he may be taking the bull by the horns.

"We see and believe Israeli aggression continuing daily in the West Bank," says Abulkheir. "This is what has led the region to terror, and by making peace you can still remove the reasons for terror. This would be the best remedy for all of us."

The Bush administration contends that the moment for peace and reform is ripe because of the US military's sweeping victory in Iraq. Bush, who came to office vowing to avoid "nation building" and a strong US hand, is now counting on those assets to secure future success in the Middle East.

How to promote reform

Proponents of reform in the Middle East say that the sense of being pressured is not likely to promote real movement toward democracy and human rights in the region.

In an opinion piece this week titled, "Arab pride, US prejudice," Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, wrote that, "Nothing is acceptable in the Arab world if it comes from the United States - even if it can be helpful."

Indeed, nearly 20 months after Bush helped launch the "war on terror" and simultaneously called for leaders in the Middle East to loosen their authoritarian holds on the Arab public, the administration cannot yet point to watershed moves toward genuine democracy in the region.

While Bahrain has experimented with local elections and Jordan promotes democratic participation in the rural hinterland, Saudi Arabia and Egypt remain ironclad authoritarian regimes with little prospect for real democratic change on the horizon.

Even Iraq, now run by American administrators, appears mired in ethnic and religious power struggles that Western analysts say could bog the US-led occupation.

Though the US has insisted on reforms, Arab leaders, most of whom rule from the top down, have made what analysts call only "pro forma" moves in that direction. The government of President Hosni Mubarak, for example, announced this year that it would set up a Council for Human Rights in Egypt. Critics say the move is akin to appointing a government "minister" for the job, which would entail facing down charges from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that insist basic rights have only been eroded in Egypt since Sept. 11, 2001.

Barriers to real understanding

Contradictions and opposing definitions still mar real understanding between Washington and the Arab world, say religious and political leaders in the region.

Authoritarian leaders in the Arab world are pressured on the one hand to comply with the US-led "war on terror," while acknowledging that the citizens they represent often view US policies as the cause for "terror" in the first place.

"Our youth see the Islamic world under attack," says Fathallah Arsalan, a spokesman for Morocco's largest opposition group, the banned Islamist organization Justice and Charity.

"George W. Bush says this is a new US-led crusade against terror," he adds. "What are they - our young people - to think? They suffer from economic and social problems, then someone puts it into black and white for them and it becomes a religious problem. Western leaders only enhance the sense that there is a growing clash of cultures."

Egypt's Abulkheir says that many Arabs see the US as a regional aggressor with bold plans to occupy the Middle East.

The much-publicized absence of a "smoking gun" confirming the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has only added to that notion, he says. The perception, right or wrong, is likely to cloud Bush's efforts to promote the US as a peace mediator.

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