Bush pivots to Arab side of Mideast peace dispute

Bush pivots to Arab side of Mideast peace dispute

President Bush pivoted to the Arab side of the Mideast peace dispute on Saturday, and got a far less glowing reception from his Egyptian host — a key player in the long-running fight — than he did in Israel earlier this 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 Mideast dispute that Bush has said he wants to solve by the time he leaves office next 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 earlier this week seemed to reinforce that view.

In a much-anticipated speech 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.

A front page 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 on Saturday 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 U.S.-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 is meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas late Saturday — they have dinner after a more formal discussion session. Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating since December, but nothing visible has emerged from the secretive 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 secular 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 United States 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.

Egypt, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance behind Israel, would still continue to get $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid for the next decade under a package the administration sent to Congress last year.

Bush also was seeing Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday. Then, on Sunday, he is meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and several Iraqi leaders.

He had planned to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora as well, but that session fell off his schedule amid turmoil in Lebanon.

The militant group Hezbollah overran Beirut neighborhoods last week in protest of measures aimed at the group by Saniora’s government. The display of military power by the Shiite militant group resulted in the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. But on Thursday, Saniora’s government reached a deal with Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, after Lebanon’s Cabinet reversed measures aimed at reining in the militants.