SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – President Bush said Saudi Arabia's small increase in oil production will not solve soaring U.S. fuel prices, but he defended the wealthy kingdom Saturday against American lawmakers "screaming the loudest" for Riyadh to open its spigots.
Bush also encountered bitter Arab criticism that he favors Israel too heavily and was bluntly questioned by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about whether he is serious about peacemaking. Bush said he was "absolutely committed" to reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of his presidency next January.
But there was no sign during Bush's five-day Mideast trip that the two sides are moving closer toward an accord.
"It breaks my heart to see the vast potential of the Palestinian people really wasted," Bush said. Pledging the creation of an independent homeland, Bush said "It'll be an opportunity to end the suffering that takes place in the Palestinian territories."
With Israel's occupation of Arab lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war entering its fifth decade, most Palestinians live in dire poverty.
On the last stop of his travels, Bush held a rapid-fire series of diplomatic meetings at this posh Red Sea resort, famous for its brilliantly clear waters and sea-snorkling reefs. After talks with Mubarak, Bush saw Afghan President Hamid Karzai and had dinner with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On Sunday, he will confer with the leaders of Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq. He said every meeting advances prospects for peace.
As oil prices hit another record high on Friday, Saudi King Abdullah rebuffed Bush's request for higher oil production to take the pressure off prices. The high prices are a political nightmare in a presidential election year for Bush and his would-be Republican successor, Sen. John McCain. Bush said he cautioned the king about the repercussions of skyrocketing prices.
"I said very plainly, I said, `You've got to be concerned about the effects of high oil prices on some of the biggest customers in the world. And not only that, of course, high energy prices (are) going to cause countries like mine to accelerate our move toward alternative energy."
Saudi officials said the kingdom was pumping all the oil that its customers want and that production had been increased by 300,000 barrels a day earlier this month.
"It's something, but it doesn't solve our problem," Bush said. "Our problem in America gets solved when we aggressively go for domestic exploration. Our problem in America gets solved if we expand our refining capacity, promote nuclear energy, and continue our strategy for the advancement of alternative energies, as well as conservation."
Rather than criticize the Saudis, Bush turned his fire on Democrats back home threatening to kill a $1.4 billion arms sale to Riyadh unless it pumps at least 1 million additional barrels a day.
"One of the interesting things about American politics these days is those who are screaming the loudest for increased production from Saudi Arabia are the very same people who are fighting the fiercest against domestic exploration, against the development of nuclear power, and against expanding refining capacity," Bush said, standing on a manicured lawn overlooking the sea after talks with Karzai.
The president's first appointment was with 80-year-old Mubarak, who has led an authoritarian government in Egypt since 1981. In unusually blunt criticism, Egypt's state-owned press attacked Bush for his speech Thursday before the Israeli Knesset. The media accused Bush of being overly supportive of the Israelis and not mentioning the Palestinians' plight.
"The Torah-inspired speech of Bush raised question marks over the credibility of the U.S. role in the Middle East," wrote Mursi Atallah, the publisher of Al-Ahram, the flagship daily of the state-owned press. "Bush aims to do nothing but appeasing Israel."
Bush, in his address Thursday, 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. 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 said Mubarak "wanted to make sure that my approach toward the Middle Eastern peace is firm, and that we work hard to get the Palestinian state defined." Bush said that "I believe we can get a state defined by the end of my presidency, and we'll work hard to achieve that objective."
He repeated those assurances later to Abbas. The Palestinian leader said that "we are working very seriously and very aggressively with the hope that we will be able to achieve this objective before the end of the year."
Bush said he and Abbas agreed on their concern about "radical elements undermining" the U.S.-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
"This is a defining moment," he said. "It is a moment that requires us to stand strongly with the Saniora government and to support the Saniora government."
The militant group Hezbollah overran Beirut neighborhoods last week in protest of measures aimed at the group by Saniora's government, a display of power that shocked and concerned the West. The violence only ended when Lebanon's Cabinet reversed the measures and Saniora's government reached a deal with the Shiite militant group, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Bush had planned to meet with Saniora in Egypt on Sunday, but the session was canceled.