LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
President Bush delivered a sweeping speech to leaders from the Middle East today saying their region is energetic, entrepreneurial, with vast natural resources but needs to do more to open their economies and guarantee its people freedom.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Freedom is also the basis for a democratic system of government, which is the only fair and just ordering of society and the only way to guarantee the god-given rights of all people. Democracies do not take the same shape. They develop at different speeds and in different ways and they reflect the unique cultures and traditions of their people.
HANSEN: Mr. Bush was speaking at the World Economic Forum, a meeting of international policymakers and business leaders, being held at the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm El Sheikh. NPR's Jackie Northam has been traveling with the president during this five-day swing through the Middle East, and she joins us now from Sharm El Sheikh. Jackie, what were some of the highlights of the president's address?
JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, the speech laid out President Bush's vision for the region in the future and the steps that he thinks need to be taken to achieve that. He spent about half the speech talking about the economies of the region but the other half was focused on security. He repeated that Iran cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. He certainly talked about the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Bush received a lot of criticism when he was in Israel earlier this week that he had a bias toward that country and was not fully supporting the Palestinians. Mr. Bush tried to refute that as you can hear in this bit of tape that we can play.
Pres. BUSH: We must stand with the Palestinian people who have suffered for decades and earned a right to be a homeland of their own, to have a homeland of their own. I strongly support a two-state solution, a democratic Palestine based on law and justice that will live with peace and security alongside a Democrat Israel.
(Soundbite of applause)
HANSEN: Jackie, President Bush has said he wants a peace deal before he leaves office in January. Do others there share his optimism?
NORTHAM: I think there's a sense of pessimism here that it will happen. The president has less than nine months in office; he's not particularly popular in this area. And, you know, he's not considered an honest broker as far as the peace deal goes. Again, because he's seen as being more sympathetic to Israel.
Mr. Bush met with a lot of regional leaders during this Middle East to try to push negotiations forward towards the peace deal. There were closed door one-on-one meetings but, you know, it's really difficult to say what he's actually going to walk away with.
HANSEN: And briefly, what is the White House saying about the president's visit to the region?
NORTHAM: Well, Stephen Hadley, the national security advisor, came on and said that the president used all these bilateral meetings and that he's used all these bilateral meetings to advance this process and that he's been encouraged by what he's heard. Mr. Hadley disputed the notion that this was just a lot of empty rhetoric going on here and that things hadn't really advanced. He said there was tangible progress on hard issues but he wouldn't elaborate, primarily because many details of the negotiations are a secret. Mr. Hadley says that President Bush would return to this region, though, if there was work for him to do to advance the peace process.
HANSEN: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thank you, Jackie.
NORTHAM: Thank you very much.
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