Bush Upbeat After Talks With Saudi Prince
CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush said Thursday that he had developed a "strong personal bond" with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, but the two emerged from talks without any declarations on how to proceed with forging peace in the Middle East.
The president's upbeat assessment contrasted with Saudi complaints that his backing of Israel had damaged prospects for Mideast peace and threatened the United States' 70-year alliance with the desert kingdom.
"There is a lot of anger at the U.S. for what is perceived as a lack of restraining [Ariel] Sharon," the Israeli prime minister, said Adel Al-Jubeir, the foreign policy adviser to Abdullah.
"The crown prince wanted to make sure the president was aware of this," the adviser said. "Allowing this problem to spiral out of control will have grave consequences for the U.S. and its interests."
Bush told reporters afterward that U.S.-Saudi relations were strong.
"A strategy by some would be to split the United States and Saudi Arabia. It's a strong important friendship and he knows that, I know that, and we're not going to let that happen," he said.
He took a personal view of that friendship after he and Abdullah, who spoke in Arabic and used a translator, lingered in their meetings and a drive in Bush's pickup truck through the woods of his Prairie Chapel Ranch.
"One of the really positive things out of this meeting is the fact the crown prince and I established a strong personal bond," Bush said. "We've spent a lot of time alone discussing our respective visions, talking about our families."
The Israeli-Palestinian crisis dominated Bush's first face-to-face meeting with Abdullah.
"There is a shared vision," the president said, adding that they discussed possible next steps in implementing a Saudi peace plan championed by Abdullah and endorsed by the 22-member Arab League.
The crown prince, who rarely comments to the media, left without public comment.
Bush said his demand that Israel withdraw from Palestinian areas still stands: "I made it clear to him that I expected Israel to withdraw, just like I've made it clear to Israel. And we expect them to be finished." He also said Israel must resolve standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem "in a nonviolent way."
Bush said he was grateful for Abdullah's assurance that Saudi Arabia would not support any other angry Arab states joining Iraq's oil embargo.
The Saudi leader "made it clear ... that they will not use oil as a weapon and I appreciate that, respect that and expect that to be the case," Bush said.
The two leaders met inside Bush's ranch home, talked over lunch and then set out in his truck to explore the 1,600 acres' wooded canyons dotted with Texas bluebonnets and wild pink poppies.
Given rising U.S.-Saudi tensions, White House officials had made contingency plans for the visit to be cut short. Instead, the crown prince lingered more than two hours over schedule.
Bush said he took special pleasure in showing off his favorite spots on the ranch. "We saw a wild turkey, which was good," he said.
In a business suit and cowboy boots, Bush opened the visit with the kind of formality he normally leaves at the Texas state line. He welcomed Abdullah, who wore a flowing brown robe, with a long handshake and quiet exchange of pleasantries.
The crown prince, whom Bush addressed all day as "Your Royal Highness," bore a warning that Bush's apparent tolerance of Israeli military offensives against Palestinians had damaged prospects for Mideast peace.
"We believe the administration could have been stronger on Sharon, made it clearer to him that negotiations cannot be done under the barrel of a gun," Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy, told reporters here.
Sharon has kept Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under virtual house arrest in the West Bank while Israeli forces, in defiance of Bush's own April 4 demands, press forward in a bloody hunt for Palestinian terrorists.
The crown prince brought a message, his spokesman said: "Sharon has been acting up, and the U.S. government needs to rein him in. We cannot maintain the peace process with this stuff going on."
Some oil prices surged Thursday on fears that Abdullah would threaten to choke off Saudi oil to the United States. Al-Jubeir denied that. "We've always been a reliable source of oil, and we'll continue to be," he said.
Further straining the U.S.-Saudi relationship — at a time when Bush is trying to stick to a zero-tolerance policy against terrorists — are recent displays of Saudi support for Palestinian suicide bombings of Israeli civilians.
A senior administration official briefing reporters after Thursday's talks said Bush raised general concerns about inciting anti-Israel terror.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain published a poem praising Palestinian suicide bombers as "martyrs" and the Saudi government sponsored a telethon that collected $100 million to help the bombers' families. Secretary of State Colin Powell testified to the Senate this week that some of that money may have gone to elements of the militant Hamas organization.
U.S. officials at the ranch questioned the Saudi foreign minister in detail Thursday and were assured that telethon proceeds were being funneled only to humanitarian aid groups, the official said.
The leaders reached no decision on a Mideast peace conference. On expanding the anti-terror war into Iraq, which Arab nations are resisting, Bush spoke of Saddam Hussein as a serious menace, the official said, and they discussed ideas of what to do about him.
With Abdullah remaining in the United States a couple more days, White House officials said they would continue to tend to the relationship. On Friday, Abdullah was taking a train with Bush's father, the first President Bush, from Houston to College Station, Texas, for lunch.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.