SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) – President George W. Bush sought to reassure skeptical Arabs on Sunday he is committed to securing a deal on Palestinian statehood before he leaves office, despite his outspoken support for Israel.
Wrapping up his Middle East tour in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush was looking to ease Palestinian dismay over his visit to Israel, where he lavished the Jewish state with praise, hailing it as a “homeland for the chosen people.”
Bush planned to use a speech to Arab leaders at an economic forum in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday to insist that he “firmly believes” a Middle East peace deal can be reached this year — a deadline widely viewed as unrealistic.
“We must stand with the Palestinian people, who have suffered for decades and earned the right to a homeland of their own,” Bush will say, according to an advance text of his speech.
Adjusting his approach from the one taken during his visit to Israel last week to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Bush will challenge the Palestinians to “fight terror” and call on Israel to make “tough sacrifices for peace and ease restrictions on Palestinians.”
Bush was alluding to the hardship that Palestinians face from Israeli roadblocks and barriers in the occupied West Bank, measures they call collective punishment but which Israel says are to defend it against militant attacks.
Bush’s more sympathetic language on the Palestinians’ plight appeared aimed at countering Arab doubts, reinforced by his Israel visit, about his ability to act as an even-handed peace broker.
Bush will also use his speech to urge Arab leaders to stand by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against Hezbollah and to isolate Iran over its nuclear program.
“Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions,” Bush will say. “To allow the world’s leading sponsor of terror to gain the world’s deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations.”
LECTURE TO ARAB LEADERS
With fewer than nine months left in office, Bush, highly unpopular in the Arab world because of the Iraq war, will lecture Arab countries on everything from economics to political reforms.
He will call on Arab governments, to free all “prisoners of conscience” and open up political debate.
Reflecting U.S. public concerns about high oil prices during a presidential election year, Bush will warn Arab oil producers that their supplies are limited and they must diversify their economies.
His comments follow a visit to Saudi Arabia where he won a modest increase in oil output for world markets. High oil prices have stoked U.S. recession fears.
Bush, who met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday, is also seeking broader regional support for the faltering Middle East peace process.
Bush stoked anger among Palestinians and their Arab allies in a speech to Israel’s parliament on Thursday in which he pledged unflinching support for the Jewish state but made only one reference to Palestinians’ dreams of a state of their own.
Palestinian officials and Arab leaders and commentators responded with stinging criticism.
Bush’s five-day Middle East tour, his second this year, follows a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.
Since then, talks have bogged down over Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and violence in and around the Gaza Strip, where Hamas cross-border rocket fire has triggered a tough Israeli military response.
Bush hopes to forge a foreign policy legacy beyond the unpopular war in Iraq. Critics say his effort is too little, too late and still lacks the full weight of U.S. diplomacy.
Peace moves have also been hindered by the weakness of the main players. Abbas governs only in the West Bank while Hamas controls Gaza. Israeli Prime Ehud Olmert faces a corruption scandal that could force his resignation and may derail the peace process altogether.