RABAT, Morocco, Dec. 11 -- Senior Arab officials attending a U.S.-sponsored conference in the Middle East rejected the Bush administration's assertion that greater democracy would help end terrorism, arguing that the administration's strong support of Israel made it difficult to undertake political reforms or halt extremists driven by hatred of U.S. policies.
"Let us face it: Our differences are neither religious nor cultural," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal said. "We perceive no clashes of civilization or competing value systems. The real bone of contention is the longest conflict in modern history."
President Bush has said the push to bring greater democracy in the Middle East is one of the central goals of his second term. But after an Arab backlash earlier this year, the focus of the conference -- dubbed the "Forum on the Future" -- had already been watered down to mostly focus on economic liberalization.
The tough comments from Arab leaders further illustrate how the initiative may be undermined by other policies of the Bush administration. U.S. officials in the past have rejected a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political reform in the Middle East.
"We can't keep pointing to the Middle East peace process as the reason we don't undertake reform efforts that are needed by these nations," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters traveling with him as he flew here Friday.
But other Arab officials echoed Saud's tough remarks, or brought up the impact of the Iraq conflict. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit attributed instability and insecurity in the region to the stagnation of the peace process. Libya's representative, deputy foreign minister Hassouna Shawish, said "continued bloodshed makes it difficult for us all. I'm talking about bloodshed in Iraq."
European officials attending the session also saw a link between reform and the Palestinian issue. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said progress on that front "will lend all reform and modernization efforts in the Arab world unprecedented momentum."
Moreover, the closing statement issued by the chair of the meeting, Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa, pointedly noted that support for reform in the region "will go hand in hand" with support for a just peace for Palestinians.
Powell, speaking at a news conference later, acknowledged that if progress is made on Middle East peace "and if we start moving down that track, then I think conditions are created for faster reform. But we not sitting here today saying no reform until that is resolved."
Reflecting the tension over the conflict, Morocco did not invite Israel, a thriving democracy, to the event. Officials from some 20 Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa attended, along members of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and representatives business and civil society groups. Iran was expected to attend but withdrew from the conference shortly before it began.
In his remarks, Saud said Arabs recognized the United States has a "bias toward Israel" but "the Arab peoples cannot fathom why these guarantees are transformed into unrestricted backing of unrestrained Israeli policies contrary to international legality."
Arguing the conflict was responsible for the "seeds of terrorism" in the region, he said "it remains to be seen whether for the first time we can be honest with each other and commit ourselves to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict."
At one point, Saud recited a long list of Western and Arab philosophers that he said had shaped common values of Western and Arab nations. "These principles are far more powerful in their sublime inspiration than any weapons of war in inflicting fear and intimidation," he said, alluding to the invasion of Iraq. "By returning to these values, you can win the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim peoples."
The State Department had said the session at which Saud spoke was intended to be closed. But Moroccan authorities inadvertently broadcast it to journalists covering the event.
Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush had signaled he hoped the fall of Saddam Hussein would help usher in democracy across the Middle East, and he has repeatedly pressed this idea in the past year. Earlier this month in Canada, the president framed the democracy initiative as one of three "great commitments" to enhancing U.S. security, along with promoting effective multilateral institutions and fighting global terrorism. "By taking the side of reformers and democrats in the Middle East, we will gain allies in the war on terror, and isolate the ideology of murder and help defeat the despair and hopelessness that feeds terror," Bush said in Halifax on Dec. 1.
But the grand concept elucidated by Bush in practice mostly has evolved in a discussion of economic issues, not political reform. The meeting included a fledging effort by Italy, Turkey and Yemen to discuss democracy assistance, but much of the one-day conference centered on such issues as financing for small entrepreneurs and literacy. A planned $100 million fund for small and mid-sized business fell short, raising $60 million from donors.
During the public session, Powell said countries could attempt economic reforms first, but ultimately success was linked to increasingly open societies. "Now is not the time to argue about the pace of democratic reform, or whether economic reform must precede political reform," he said. But he noted: "Countries with active political participation by all people tend to enjoy greater investment, economic growth and educational excellence. In short, political and economic freedom go hand-in-hand."
Gheit said in an interview that he resisted the notion that "reform" was necessary in the Arab world. "I prefer the word 'modernity,'" he said, saying that reform means something is wrong and need to be fixed.
The conference also has been controversial in Morocco, where human rights groups have demonstrated against hosting it while the United States continues to occupy Iraq. The day before the conference started, L'Economiste, a leading conservative business publication here, published a front page editorial cartoon on the conference depicting a U.S. soldier, in full military gear, pointing a machine gun at a Arab man on the ground. In a quote the cartoon attributes to Powell, the soldier sneers: "I hope we can come to an understanding of the need for reform and modernization of the Broader Middle East and North Africa region."
Before arriving here, Powell appeared to set a low standard for success at the meeting. He said the very fact that the Arab and Muslim nations had agreed to attend and speak about these issues was a "significant achievement."