SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – President Bush pivoted to the Arab side of the Mideast peace dispute on Saturday, but he may well get a less glowing reception than he did in Israel earlier this week.
Bush opened two days of talks here with a string of leaders key to U.S. goals in the region: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On Sunday, Bush is meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and several Iraqi leaders.
Bush, who flew to Egypt after having breakfast in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah, also had planned to see Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora while he was in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, 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.
Bush was seeing Mubarak in a formal meeting session as well as over lunch at a luxury hotel overlooking the sea. The Egyptian leader, nearly three decades in power, could be an unlikely partner for Bush's push to spread freedom in the Middle East.
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 U.S. has seen its longtime alliance with Egypt sour over the pace of political reform there.
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's meetings with Abbas late in the day — they have dinner after a more formal discussion session — follow his two-day visit in Israel coinciding with the Jewish state's 60th anniversary celebrations. That milestone is seen by Palestinians as a catastrophe because of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who either fled or were driven out of their homes during the 1948 war over Israel's creation.
Bush did not visit the Palestinian territories while in Israel, nor did he mention their plight. In a much-anticipated speech Thursday to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Bush only gently urged Mideast leaders to "make the hard choices necessary," without mention of concrete steps, and spoke of Palestinians only in one sentence that predicted they would have their own state by 2068.
Bush is seen in the Arab world as tilting much too far toward Israel. Comments Friday from Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal about Bush's speech suggested that had not changed.
"We are all aware of the special U.S.-Israeli relation and its political dimensions," he 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.
Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating since December, but nothing visible has emerged from the secretive process.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are weak among their own constituencies and fresh violence from the Gaza Strip and settlement activity by Israelis are diminishing an already precious supply of trust. The president did no negotiating while in Israel and left the Holy Land with no new progress on an accord.