SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Answering Arab skepticism, President Bush promised Wednesday to stay engaged in pulling Israelis and Palestinians toward a peace pact by the end of his term.
The president, on the last stop of his eight-day Mideast trip, got a boost from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A top Arab ally to Bush, Mubarak said he would work hand-in-hand with the U.S. on a deal to create an independent Palestinian state.
"When I say I'm coming back to stay engaged, I mean it," said Bush, who has committed to returning to the region in May. "When I say I'm optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I'm saying."
In comments summing up his trip, Bush also expressed support for the U.S.-backed government in Lebanon, gently urged further political reforms in Egypt, and praised the Iraqi government for recent steps toward reconciliation among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Mubarak said he stressed in his talks with Bush that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the core of problems and turmoil in the Middle East. Bush has expressed a desire to reach an agreement before he leaves office in January 2009.
"I also said that I wish that he will reach a peace agreement before the end of his term," Mubarak said, through a translator.
"We are keen on supporting peace efforts," Mubarak said. "We are ready, hand-in-hand with the United States of America," and others to work for the "sake of a comprehensive and just peace, to put an end to this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to open new horizons for the Middle East for a more peaceful and secure future."
Bush said he is convinced that leaders in both Israel and the West Bank are committed to a two-state solution.
"I know nations in the neighborhood are willing to help, particularly yourself," Bush told Mubarak.
Standing alongside Mubarak, Bush urged greater political openness in Egypt, but did not directly criticize the Egyptian government for what the U.S. sees as a lack of political freedoms. Bush praised Egypt for taking some steps toward democratic reform, but said more was needed.
"I'm absolutely confident that people in the Middle East are working on building a society based on justice," Bush said.
Bush said Egypt can play a role in the "freedom and justice movement" and is showing more economic openness. "My hope is that the Egyptian government will build on these important steps."
The Egyptian government has waged a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of the Islamic fundamentalist group's members, as well as some secular opponents.
And Bush did not mention prominent jailed political opponent Ayman Nour, whose case U.S. officials have pledged to raise with the Egyptians every time they meet. The State Department called Nour's 2006 trial on election-related charges a "miscarriage of justice."
Wrapping up his journey, which included a side trip to Baghdad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush said the fragile Iraqi government was making progress on political reconciliation.
"The government isn't perfect, but nevertheless, progress is being made," he said.
"Normal life is coming back, and political life is moving," Bush said, offering an upbeat take on a war that has drained public patience back home.
"The United States will continue to help the Iraqi people secure their democracy," Bush said.
Bush, who left Egypt after his remarks to return to Washington, also expressed support for the weak U.S.-backed government in Lebanon, and called on Syria and Iran to stop interfering in Beirut.
"We agreed it's important for nations in this region to support Prime Minister (Fuad) Saniora," Bush said. "It's important to encourage the holding of immediate, unconditional presidential elections according to the Lebanese constitution, and to make it clear to Syria, Iran and their allies they must end their interference and efforts to undermine the process."