BRUSSELS, Feb. 21 -- President Bush challenged Europe on Monday to put aside its differences with the United States over the Iraq war and become a "strong partner" in "advancing freedom in the world." He also called on Russia to "renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law."
At the outset of a European tour designed to mend transatlantic alliances strained by differences over the war and other issues, Bush appealed to all European countries to "place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia." Bush is to meet Thursday with President Vladimir Putin, who has been criticized for forcing political opponents into exile, eliminating the election of governors, taking control of independent television and otherwise rolling back democracy.
On the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Bush declared that a settlement was "now within reach." He called on Palestinian leaders to "confront and dismantle terrorist groups." He appealed to Israel to freeze Jewish settlement activity and "ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable, with contiguous territory on the West Bank. A state of scattered territories will not work."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has suggested connecting Palestinian areas in the West Bank, now separated by highways that link Jewish settlements, with a series of overpasses and tunnels. Europeans have been critical of the Bush administration for appearing to side too strongly with Sharon's government.
Speaking to an audience of 300 at the elegant Concert Noble Hall here, Bush called the expansion of democracy the most effective way to rid the world of the deep resentments that foment terrorism.
In the short term, he said, Europe and the United States must stand together to support fledgling democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq and to end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis.
"We seek peace between Israel and Palestine for its own sake," Bush said. "We also know that a free and peaceful Palestine can add to the momentum of reform throughout the broader Middle East. In the long run, we cannot live in peace and safety if the Middle East continues to produce ideologies of murder."
Regarding other problems in the Middle East, Bush said Syria must end its support of terrorist groups. He also called on Syria to live up to a U.N. resolution demanding that it remove thousands of troops from Lebanon. "Syria must . . . end its occupation of Lebanon," Bush said to applause.
Later, Bush and French President Jacques Chirac issued a joint statement condemning the assassination last week of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and calling for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Bush's speech came during a trip that administration officials say is designed to persuade skeptical Europeans to move past the disagreements that strained relations with the United States during the president's first term.
"America supports a strong Europe because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom in the world," Bush said in his speech.
But even as the president sought a closer working relationship with Europe, there was little indication of any U.S. movement on the policies that soured relations between the longtime allies. Instead, U.S. officials said they saw Europeans slowly being won over to their view.
In a briefing with reporters, two senior administration officials described Europe as moving closer to the Bush administration's positions on a variety of issues, including Iraq and the use of NATO as a tool for spreading democracy. In recent weeks, several European nations have announced plans to help train Iraqi police and assist the Iraqi military.
"I would say that NATO is more unified today on Iraq, Afghanistan and other major issues in the alliance than at any time in the last three years," a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity. "There is a much better tone."