WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Bush is counting advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and democratic reforms among his accomplishments in the Middle East.
"The negotiations since Annapolis have been determined and substantial," Bush says in remarks prepared for a speech Friday evening at the annual Saban Forum in Washington, referring to renewed talks launched by his administration a year ago in Annapolis, Md. "While the Israelis and Palestinians have not yet produced an agreement, they have made important progress."
In the speech, Bush calls the Middle East in 2008 "a freer, more hopeful and more promising place than it was in 2001," citing the removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, Libya’s agreement to destroy its weapons of mass destruction and the participation of women in public life in a number of Arab nations.
He acknowledges, however, a rollback of promising signs in Iran.
"America recognized that the most effective way to persuade Iran to renounce its nuclear weapons ambitions was to have partners at our side, so we supported an international effort led by our allies in Europe," he says. "This diplomacy yielded an encouraging result, when Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment. Unfortunately, after the election of President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, Iran reversed course and announced it would begin enriching again. Since then, we have imposed tough sanctions and supported multiple U.N. resolutions."
In fact, it’s not clear that Iran ever agreed to stop its uranium enrichment; its leaders denied the development almost as soon as European diplomats reported it.
Bush says the Middle East was critical to U.S. security.
"Over the past eight years, I have had the privilege to see the Middle East up close," he says. "I have stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and hiked the cliffs of Masada. I have enjoyed dinner in the desert in Abu Dhabi and prayed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I have looked into the eyes of courageous elected leaders from Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. And I have been convinced that no region is more fundamental to the security of America or the peace of the world than the Middle East."