Bush departs from Mideast without concrete progress on peace

President George W. Bush left the Middle East after a five-day trip that was filled with speeches and support for Israel and little sign of concrete progress toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, Bloomberg reported.

Bush capped his trip with a speech 18 May in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to a World Economic Forum conference that drew sporadic, stilted applause, contrasting sharply with the wildly enthusiastic support he received when addressing Israel's Knesset and a 60th anniversary celebration in Jerusalem last week.

Asked if anything of substance had occurred on the trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley stressed the trip was meant to ``make clear America's commitment to the Israeli people'' and show the president's ``continued support for the effort to negotiate a Palestinian peace.''

Bush also urged the Middle East to make democratic reforms and prophesized a region that 60 years from now will be at peace with itself.

Hadley left open the possibility that Bush may return to the Middle East for a third time this year to work toward that goal. ``I think the president will come back here when there is work for him to do to advance the process,'' Hadley told reporters accompanying Bush. The president is ``committed to do what needs to be done to try and get a success here.''

In his speech today, Bush said that in last year's Annapolis, Maryland summit ``we made a hopeful beginning toward a peace agreement that will outline what this nation of Palestine will look like, a contiguous state where Palestinians live in prosperity and dignity.''

``I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year,'' the U.S. president said. Palestinians need to fight terror, Israel needs to make ``tough sacrifices for peace'' and ease restrictions on the Palestinians. Arab states, especially oil-rich nations, should ``move past their old resentments against Israel,'' Bush said.

Jordan's King Abdullah, preceding Bush at the podium, said, ``It is vital that the year 2008 does not end as the year 2000 did: with progress cut off, the sphere of agreement collapsing and years of expanding violence to come.''

In July 2000, peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state brokered by then-President Bill Clinton collapsed as Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat failed to agree on the core issues of borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. A violent Palestinian intifada erupted two months later.

If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reach an agreement by the end of Bush's presidency in January, 2009, it should be possible to implement the peace treaty and establish a Palestinian state before the end of 2013, according to Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator.

``The agreement will be implemented according to a negotiated time-line and under international supervision,'' Erekat said today in an interview in Sharm el-Sheikh.

``It will take more than a year and less than five years,'' he said. Abbas told Bush yesterday that in his speech to Israel's Knesset last week, ``he missed an opportunity to tell the people of Israel that the freedom of one people is linked to the freedom of another people,'' Erekat said.

Bush today also urged all Middle Eastern countries to release ``their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate, and trust their people to chart their future,'' a point both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have made repeatedly.

``Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail,'' Bush said. `` America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed.''

``Democracy does not threaten Islam or any other religion. Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection,'' Bush said.

The speech included a list of demands for the Arab world including the pursuit of economic reform and empowerment of women and drew only pockets of stilted applause.

Bush also said nations should unite to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to oppose Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants who threaten the stability of Lebanon.

``Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions,'' Bush said. ``To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.''

Bush departed for Washington after delivering the speech.

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